Review Summary: Lyrically, Midlake successfully trades whimsical for depressive, but they forgot to compose interesting music to accompany the mood.
When Fleet Foxes hit the blogosphere in 2008 with the debut self-titled album, I did not believe the hype. I recalled the mountain man, hermit-in-a-cabin aesthetic from somewhere else: Midlake’s The Trials of Van Occupanther
. Of course, Fleet Foxes did not perform a direct ripoff; they certainly played up the isolated aspect of the folk aesthetic much more than Midlake. If Fleet Foxes were the hermits in a cabin seemingly transported from another age, then the members of Midlake were the wise old men who remembered the rural ways of life and decried today’s modernity (see “Roscoe”, “Head Home”). Yet even musically, I found Fleet Foxes inferior. They could not compete with the variety of harmonic structures that Midlake used on their brilliant sophomore album. The vocal harmonies Midlake used opened and closed, and the amount of orchestration was unparalleled.
Four years later, Midlake have finally risen again with The Courage of Others
. They still retain that folky, rural aesthetic, but instead of seeming like the whimsical, wise raconteur, they seem more like the grumpy old man who hates seeing kids run across his lawn. The music takes a decidedly darker, slower note, further delving into the folk rock of The Trials of Van Occupanther
and losing the powerful orchestration that made Van Occupanther
Lyrically, the album is not really at fault. Tim Smith consistently composes lyrics of powerful metaphor, retaining that same theme of condemning modernity. He makes the shift from the whimsical “Roscoe” and other earlier work to the agitated, reclusive “Rulers, Ruling All Things”, the lyrical centerpiece of the album. In fact, the entire tone of the album could easily be summarized in the song’s hook, “I only want to be left to my own ways/The rulers of one leaving all things undone.” While before, Smith reveled in the joy of roaming around with bandits, he seems to have lost that joy, encapsulated by “Core of Nature”: “I will train my feet to go on with the joy/A joy I have yet to reach.” Indeed, The Courage of Others
is a misnomer, a red herring, as the title track closes with “In the dark room he trembles alone/He trembles alone.”
The music accompanies the solemnity of Smith’s lyrics well, but unfortunately, it appears that Midlake only knows how to compose “sad” in one way. Gone are the dancing strings and oboes that once floated on top of the folk atmosphere, and the band replaces them only with flutes, which grow stale after a few uses. Instead of expansive vocal harmonies covering bass-baritone to countertenor, the singers turn everything down a notch in energy and pitch. The harmonies do not seem like a key aspect of the music left to stand for themselves as they did on Van Occupanther
. They act more towards the purpose of embellishing Smith, whose voice dominates the rest of the ensemble consistently throughout the album. Thus, rather than stating lyrics as a full band, Smith makes the choices, and the band simply follows along.
At the core structure of the music, not much varies from song to song. Everything falls in the same mid-tempo, down-tuned-chord drudgery that is hypnotic in the same way that watching a pendulum swing is hypnotic. At the end of the album, nothing remains but a dull wash of grey. Of course, there are redeemable moments. “Core of Nature” utilizes a 7/4 groove, providing a bit of rhythmic variety to the palette. Admittedly, “Children of the Grounds” is mildly uptempo. But still, the tone of the album – acoustic guitars embellished occasionally with electric lead, flutes, and piano; Tim Smith leading the vocal charge weakly accompanied by his bandmates – never falters.
I found it shocking that the members of Midlake met as jazz students at the University of North Texas – a university with one of the best wind programs in the country. Is The Courage of Others
a rejection of the complicated harmonies and rhythms certainly drilled into them through their jazz education? After four years, Midlake has emerged with a shockingly stripped down sound; unfortunately, they lost all of the harmonic interest that came with their more intricate, varied sound. The Courage of Others
is truly a disappointment from a band with the intelligence and capability of doing so much more.