Is it wrong to fault a band for being so utterly joyless? There are any number of bands that have achieved critical and commercial success despite never betraying even the slightest hint of happiness, so Midlake’s predilection towards the gloomiest of gloomy folk is not exactly a rarity in the music world. Radiohead might be the most acclaimed band, I don’t know, ever, and they’re not exactly known for being a batch of chuckleheads. In fact, by this point in their careers of wall-to-wall stone-faced earnestness, the idea of Thom Yorke and company smiling sounds downright creepy.
So why is it so easy for me to enjoy the majority of Radiohead’s ultra-serious catalogue, yet the thoroughly overcast aesthetic on constant display on Midlake’s latest, The Courage of Others, leaves me feeling so viscerally miserable? It’s certainly not for a lack of care or concern on Midlake’s part. The Courage of Others is, after all, a follow-up five years in the making. Last time out, on 2005’s The Trials of Van Occupanther, Midlake were comparatively spirited, if less consistent. It certainly helped that Van Occupanther opened with the indisputably glorious “Roscoe”, which will probably go down as their best song ever. You can get away with a lot on the rest of an album when your first song demands such high regard.
Midlake will probably have to learn to live with that song being the benchmark of their career, which is unfortunate. I’m certainly guilty of being that reductive about their work. Truthfully, another song with the same élan as “Roscoe” on The Courage of Others, and I would have perked back up for the album’s duration. But “Roscoe” was indeed something special for Midlake; it combined all of the qualities that they consistently display (tightly locked vocal and instrumental harmonies, rustic imagery) and added a charming, rambling spontaneity to the typically glum proceedings.
But I suppose I’m not really asking for another “Roscoe”. I’m just looking for something surprising, and The Courage of Others is nearly bereft of moments that stand out. Guitarist Eric Pulido offers up some forcefully chaotic, Neil Young-style solos here and there, but that’s really as far as the impulsiveness goes on this album. The rest is, by the bands own admission, constructed in the vein of ‘70’s British folk. They absolutely nail the pastiche, but they sacrifice vitality in the name of rigidly formed homage.
You can shuffle and reshuffle and reshuffle this album ad infinitum, and no listen will be discernibly different from the last. Opener “Acts of Man” is a pretty, wintry mid-tempo folk song full of melancholic harmonies. Closer “In the Ground” is also a pretty, wintry mid-tempo folk song full of melancholic harmonies. The same goes for everything in the middle. There are little ways that certain songs are unique: “Fortune” has no drums, and some songs have flute, but really, that’s about it. Picking a highlight track just because it’s what’s done at Stereo Subversion would be arbitrary. The homogeneity of the album makes the choice impossible. Either they’re all highlights, or none of them are.