I've been listening to Midlake's second album The Trials Of Van Occupanther for months now, to the exclusion of just about anything else (other albums, food, basic hygiene). Let me say right away that the album is jaw-droppingly brilliant, like a smooth hit of a new drug. So notice is duly given that this post is less a considered appreciation full of learned comparison and cool analysis, and more a dribbling fan letter. Apologies are offered.
Trials is the Texan band's second album after the less-than-overwhelming Bamnan and Slivercock. That album’s name alone had suggested an overweening commitment to the whimsical, an impression the music confirms, its studied psychedelia getting pretty tired over the course of an album. Lazy comparisons to The Flaming Lips were thrown around by critics; but lazy Flaming Lips is closer to the mark: Bamnan is free from the emotional punch of peak Lips. But there are some faint presentiments of the story-telling ability that lifts Trials free of the pack.
It's clear from the first track that the band have undergone a collective Great Leap Forward. The music has moved into a kind of turbo-charged combination of AM rock and recondite folk, the vocals now stacked and smeared like classic folk rock. From their studied rustic image (few moderns bands can pull off being so comprehensively bearded) to the fact that all of Midlake sing, their voices interweaving around serpentine melodies and thrilling harmonies. Listen to the track Branches and the LA version of Radiohead's I Will; each song stacks it harmonies like a madrigal.
But it's the lyrics that set the album apart. Something is not quite right in the rural idyll of the titular Van Occupanther. His ruritanian community seems to be facing an impending, possibly ecological, catastrophe. In fact, this disaster may have already occurred, leaving Van Occupanther the only survivor – a fact that he is either unaware or in denial of (see also the Martin Amis story “The Immortals” from Einstein’s Monsters.)
While the sound may be a souped-up folk-rock, ringing many familiar bells, the lyrics touch on none of the American mythos of, say, Dylan or The Band. Trials is connected to the Americana tradition only in the most oblique or occluded sense.
Check out the central lyrics to the slashing, urgent Roscoe (which also happens to be the best song I’ve heard this year):
The village used to be all one really needsThese lyrics have a sinuous and insinuating melody, and the chorus is defined more by its sudden vandal slashes of guitar than by its structural position. There are plenty of other equally good songs. 'Young Bride' is a ruritanian stomp - the wonderful video shows the protagonist escaping from her stifling family life to a snowy fantasia of 'frozen lakes, snowshoes and hunters'. The title track is a hopeful mantra, only varying at the very end. The final track is 'Head Home', where the sense that they've channelled the spirits of Fleetwood Mac is strongest. The harmonies glisten and the guitar solos are fuzzily wonky. And check out the lyrics:
That's filled with hundreds and hundreds of
Chemicals that mostly surround you
You wish to flee but it's not like you
So listen to me, listen to me
Oh, oh, oh and when the morning comes,
We will step outside
We will not find another man inside
We like the newness, the newness of all
That has grown in our garden soaking for so long
Whenever I was a child I wondered what if my name had changed into something more productive like Roscoe
Been born in 1891
Waiting with my Aunt Rosaline
Bring me a day full of honest work and a roof that never leaksThe music and massed swell of voices drops out on that final line - what it means is beyond me: is the reference to Hobbe's manifesto about the need for a strong man to lead significant? Search me. The line is immediately followed by the key line: "Think I'll head home".
I'll be satisfied
Bring me the news all about the town
How it struggles to help all the farmers out during harvest time
But there's someone I'd like to see
She never mentions a word to me
She reads Leviathan
Album of the year so far…