Review Summary: A case in point if you think the best pop songs are sad ones.
Clearly love has been tragically fickle for Tracyanne Campbell. The lead singer and songwriter for Glasgow’s Camera Obscura, Campbell is admittedly a glass-is-half-empty kind of girl, as is well known for those familiar with the band’s four-album catalog of bittersweet indie pop. But nevertheless, her graceful sketches of heartbreak and dashed hopes for love still ring with naked honesty and heart-on-sleeve emotion. Camera Obscura’s latest and best record My Maudlin Career
has Campbell reaching new depths of introspection and the rest of the band supporting with gorgeous orchestral flourishes and dreamy pop atmospherics.
The band builds off of the success of 2006’s Let’s Get Out of This Country
(further leaving comparisons to Belle and Sebastian in the dust) and moves from countrified folk pop to a more full-bodied chamber pop sound. The band weaves rich, dense string arrangements and orchestral horns in and out of songs with expert elegance; the added atmospherics always sound fitting and never overdone. A prime example of this is the album’s opener “French Navy,” whose pounding drumbeat and soaring orchestral chorus lend the song a resounding, winning quality. But the bombast is lyrically bittersweet, as Campbell chronicles the quick rise and even quicker fall of her “sailor mate” fling.
Through much of the album, the strings and horns don’t simply accent the songs, such as the beautifully subtle additions of violin on “Away With Murder,” but they carry the action with gusto and intelligence. Swirling string sections drive the happily bubbling “The Sweetest Thing,” the guarded start-and-stop of “You Told a Lie,” and the wistfully melodramatic “Careless Love.” In recalling elements of ‘60s pop, the music of Camera Obscura consistently retains a charmingly familiar quality, such as with the wholesomely innocent toy piano melody of “Swans.” On “James,” delicate guitar and low bass swirl softly and beautifully around a heartbroken Campbell, who sings, “Oh James, you broke me, I thought I knew you well.”
Gracing the instrumentation’s warmth and vigor is Campbell’s tight-lipped croon. Simply put, Campbell has a beautiful voice, expressing both biting wit and tender candidness all at once. While occasionally draped lightly in a dreamy fog, her voice resounds with clear, unbridled melodicism that reflects well her impressive songwriting talents. Campbell’s recollections of brief crushes bring lines of eye-rolling sarcasm, such as “So you want to be a writer. Fantastic idea!” from “Swans” and her taking note of her date’s “dietary restrictions” on “French Navy.” Elsewhere on the album she delivers shots of gutting heartbreak and disarming innocence, as on the breathtaking, soaring title track (“You kissed me on the forehead / Now this kiss is giving me a concussion”) and the sparse and delicate “Other Towns and Cities” (“When my pupils dilated could you tell that I liked you?”). Campbell’s lyrics are rich in defensive wit and intimate gloom, illustrating herself with a rugged exterior shielding an underlying vulnerability.
Although her lyrics are rife with dark irony and somber tones, they never feel juxtaposed alongside the generally more upbeat, poppy music of the band, but rather the words and music blend well into a gentle listen that is charming for its melancholy. The intimate lyrics make for a particularly endearing album, as the sometimes-subtle experiences and common emotions that Campbell picks up on are universal and strikingly familiar to anyone deeply in or out of love.
The album’s closer “Honey in the Sun” is a supremely catchy number high on energy and an exhilarating horn section. In it, Campbell sings, “I wish my heart was cold, but it’s warmer than before,” suggesting that perhaps she’s not quite ready for a new love, but sure enough, someone new and exciting has caught her attention, and she’s gonna go for it. I can’t help but wonder: is this the beginning of yet another cycle ending in heartbreak for our protagonist? I prefer not to delve too deep into My Maudlin Career
’s parting shot to think so; I say, you really never know what the future holds. Instead, I’ll take it as a triumphantly hopeful conclusion to an outstanding record.