The Trials of Van Occupanther, Midlake’s 2006 masterpiece, was an album of intimate concerns. Its protagonist yearned for simpler times and separation from the trappings of modern man — even as he sought a romantic connection to the outside world. These musings were buoyed and brightened by exuberant folk-rock as anthemic and open-armed as its words were introspective. By contrast, the band’s long-awaited, laboriously crafted follow-up, The Courage of Others, plays like an inverse of its predecessor.
Midlake’s music, once made airy and open by piano and woodwinds, has tightened down to lattice works of song choked with tendrils of guitars, while the lyrics have turned broad with existentialist dread. Singer-songwriter Tim Smith chants of “days that turn to nothing” in a world grasped by rulers, ruling all things — and the songs, enervating even at their fastest tempos, don’t offer the balance of hope. It’s a far cry from the act that once sang, “It’s hard for me, but I’m trying.” There are brief moments of sunlight in the gentle “Fortune” and bits of the album’s ballad-oriented second half, but it’s too little, too late; the band that burst into high-flying harmonies and embraced guitar solos a few short years ago is absent from this album. To be clear, The Courage of Others is an effort no less strongly forged than its predecessor — but it’s an album so funereal, one is less struck by the songs and more by the wonder of what tragedy so badly shattered the hearts of its creators.
(The Courage of Others is out now on Bella Union)
More: New Music | 2009 Album Release Calendar