When Midlake released The Trials of Van Occupanther in 2006, the fact that their album was so AOR-indebted was hardly noteworthy. Plenty of indie acts were mining similar ground — tell me The Flaming Lips’ At War With the Mystics wasn’t pretty much a weirder Peter Cetera record. What was interesting about The Trials was how it separated itself from the crowd. When other indie bands pulled out the moves, there always seemed to be a wink and a nod; even a band as earnest as The Decemberists managed to sound tongue in cheeky with their Iron Butterfly-esque opus The Tain. Midlake, by comparison, presented the golden AM sounds of Fleetwood Mac, Bread, and America with a complete lack of guile, sounding like that fella with a mustache and denim-tuxedo looks — big headphones, big chops, absolutely no sense of irony. They were sincere enough to appeal to the Bonnaroo crowd, economic enough to work for the NPR-minded indie rocker, and authentic enough to pass with the kind of old dudes who still buy records.
The initial press buzz regarding The Courage of Others, their long-awaited follow up, indicated a shift in the band’s weather, promising a “darker” album. To some degree, yeah, it is — though, Rihanna’s Rated R is also a darker album than The Trials of Van Occupanther. Yet despite its cryptic, apocalyptic themes, it’s more appropriate to say that Courage Of Others is a more formal, deliberate album than its predecessor, owing less to “take it easy” leanings and more to the prodigious prog-folk of E.L.P., Giles & McDonald, or the most minor-key offerings of Pentangle. Perhaps a 70s cover-art analogy might suite us best: if Van Occupanther would have sported a soft-focus snapshot of the band in the woods à la Crosby Stills Nash and Young or Seals and Croft, Courage of Others might sport a wicked-looking H.R. Giger painting or a deceptively scary skull thing, like The Eagles’ One of These Nights.
My friend Jay Bennet said The Courage of Others sounded like “a flute-filled, flatly produced, humorless, medieval soundtrack to some sort of neo-Druidic ceremony” in his Nothing Not New column. He’s right, of course , but he’s wrong about the album lacking. In my opinion, The Courage of Others is the first great record of 2010, though one that admittedly requires a little adjusting. I’m not going to say that opener “Acts of Man” — with songwriter Tim Smith’s lyric “When all the newness of gold/ Travels far from where anyone’s been/ More like the earth/ Over years” lilting over plucked acoustic guitars and skittering snare — isn’t a little ridiculous, the kind of pompous, overblown rock poetry that punk was supposed to have killed. But I’ll argue that it serves as an appropriate disclaimer for the album: If you engage in the alien nomenclature — the way most of us have to when we listen to, say, Lil Wayne or Sun Ra — you’re in for an incredible listen.
The album just doesn’t let up: The haunting, symphonic intro of “Rulers, Ruling All Things” gives way to a Led Zep morality tale, while “Fortune” features crystalline harmonies and the record’s warmest moment, a pastoral ode that momentarily breaks from the grandeur in favor of simplicity. “Bring Down” is even more Renaissance Fair, with post-Richard Thompson Fairport Convention motifs offset, only slightly, by modulating synths. A friend remarked it sort of sounded like System of a Down, and I laughed, until I turned it up and had to chuckle that, yeah, it kinda did, recalling that band’s strange appropriation of Armenian folk-sounds.
The album gets close to rocking a couple times. I swear there are some Blue Öyster Cult things going on in “The Horn,” a tangled web of electric guitars, dramatic cymbal splashes, and an epic, crashing finale that gives way to a subtle acoustic outro. “Children of the Grounds” shuffles at mid-tempo, its chorus a rousing moment that recalls the best moments of “Roscoe,” the band’s triumphant single from Van Occupanther. Closer “In The Ground” seeks to spotlight the band’s full range. It creeps quietly and laden with ethereal flutes, before rising to a sweeping crescendo and finally back to a somber finish. I might call it stuffy if I weren’t so drawn in, with Smith singing “Then the rose wakens now,” painting a romantic image of spring breaking the winter spell the rest of the album so gorgeously describes.
It’s tempting to try and make some grand point about how Midlake represent the full-circle nature of rock music, that the sounds of The Courage of Others are those that decades of punk, post-punk, and indie rock have tried to erase. And yet, here they are again, no doubt being listened to alongside Animal Collective and Yeasayer in some hipster’s dorm room. But it’s a silly conclusion to try and come to, and I think it ultimately serves only to distract from the phenomenal songs presented here. Besides, some other kid is listening to Midlake between Jack Johnson and Dave Matthews in his dorm room. Perhaps the only people being made uncomfortable are those of us trying to “figure out,” to put into context what a band and a record like this means. Listening to the record, Midlake certainly seem to have loftier concerns on their mind.