Last year, when I interviewed
the unfailingly polite (if thickly brogued) Colin MacIntyre, he mentioned that he was in the midst of recording a follow-up to his excellent debut, Loss
. Regarding the songs that would come together to form Us
, he said, "I don't like talking about the music as if one song's better than the other. There are, though, a couple of songs that are the best things I've ever written."
The problem with making a statement like that, particularly when you're riding the wave of expectation and apprehension that inevitably follows rookie critical success, is that the songs in question must inevitably be released to th same critics who fawned all over you last time. They're used to your shtick this time around, and any grandiose expectations you've raised for your sophomore release are kept at the ready, easily transformed into barbs with which to skewer you.
And so, skewer at the ready, I listened to the album. Again. And again. And again, And damn you, MacIntyre, you were right.
As good as Loss was (and make no mistake, it was very, very good), Us improves on it in virtually every way. The credit is due entirely to MacIntyre, as he is the sole member of the musical iteration of Mull Historical Society. (The original, a group dedicated to the past of the quaint Scots island where MacIntyre was born, seems pleased if confused by its native son's choice of moniker). While he has indeed enlisted the help of a bevy of harpists, horn players, drummers and other talents, the man himself plays by far the lion's share of this rich web of sound. Minimalist he's not (the lovely and plaintive "Her Is You" is the exception that proves this rule), and despite his insistence that he stripped away several layers of production before Us's release, his is a production ethic with which Fridmann, Wilson, Martin would feel comfortable.
All of this was true on the last album, though. The thing that has improved this time is MacIntyre's sense of songcraft, tension and release, narrative directness, tone, mood, and all of the other subtleties that mold raw talent into polished brilliance.
To make a fair comparison, compare "Animal Cannabus" from Loss to Us's "Live Like The Automatics": the former is a breathless rocker that juxtaposes gentle, melodic bells and chimes and high background "woo-hoos" against a solid wall of guitarbassdrums, shooting for a space-age Spectorism (and hitting it); the latter dives into a chorus-first crash of exhilaration (complete with the same "woo-hoos"), but runs smack into an almost Devo-influenced verse that builds to an almost unbearable expectation for the refrain's return before releasing. It also includes a rather nice outro that introduces a completely new melodic figure over the underlying riff. While both songs are great, the latter is more complex in its demands upon the listener -- and, ultimately, more satisfying.
The increased depth of compositional acumen is apparent on the slower tracks, as well. "5 More Minutes", which hearkens back to the death of MacIntyre's father (the overt theme of parts of the last album), makes clear that MacIntyre now feels secure enough as a writer to tackle his sense of absence with direct, probing language. As he imagines spending five minutes with his father, he includes a particularly poignant reflection on the isolation of grief: "It's only a war in my head."
More than anything, this is an album of huge, swelling, almost unbelievable melodies -- melodies so indelible that you'll swear you've heard them before, melodies that sound so right that it's almost impossible that they didn't exist until they appeared on this record. Certainly, this is the greatest of MacIntyre's strengths as a songwriter, and by rights it should propel him directly into the spotlight. This should be the album that earns the Mull Historical Society an audience on this side of the Atlantic, and sees legions of discriminating American music fans wondering where on earth that nice Scottish boy got such a terrible name for his band.