Perhaps the most immediately apparent quality of Mark McGuire’s first proper full-length since leaving Emeralds early last year is its disarming sincerity. It’s a risky move in an artistic climate such as this one, where the closest that most experimental artists come to self-revelation is in the manifestation of their particular aesthetics or in their abstraction of personal material, purging it of sentiment in the process. Much has been made of the so-called irony that supposedly reigns over us since the advent of postmodernism (and/or the internet). Risky, too, because sincerity is the abode of the melodramatic teenager (as well as the prophet), and it often houses both navel-gazing egotism and sugary schmaltz. But of course, it also reflects a refreshing sort of honesty. Along the Way is McGuire’s personal vision of a particular path of spiritual growth, and through it, McGuire opens the door to a great deal of his own process. It musically manifests with mixed results, sometimes communicating the energy and compassion these strivings seek.
For the liner notes, McGuire created an extensive philosophical narrative of the architecture of a spiritual path, drawing from the ideas of many teachers of occult philosophy and alternative history. As it accompanies each movement of the album, it articulates each passage of this way’s particular psychology and realizations. As such, it feels inextricable to the conceptual content of the album as a whole. It’s ambitious, and despite McGuire’s explanation in the preface that he is “not claiming [these events] to be right or wrong,” the tone of the story is one of philosophical certainty. More importantly though, it communicates McGuire’s own attempts to understand these ideas and share them with the audience in a spirit of sharing notes. Many spiritually-focused listeners will find Along the Way’s themes consistent with the perennial philosophy and will recognize stages on their own path in its movements. But its New Age sensibilities and relentlessly upbeat music may strike others as facile and occasionally saccharine.
Along the Way sees McGuire moving past his usual guitar-delay setup to a larger ensemble of inputs, including drum machines, synthesizers, and most notably vocals, often processing them via talkbox. His signature style remains the star, though, as the most developed and nuanced texture on the album. When McGuire’s guitar takes a central position, its melodies spread and reconstitute themselves into a myriad of forms. It’s here that he most successfully evokes the rhythms of consciousness and the vibrations of life, the delays imitating the fractal profundities of nature, the repetition and self-similarity that endlessly manifests in being or the rippling of thought through the neural net. The effortless flow of “Silent Weapons (The Architects of Manipulation)” marks a high point for this style, fully incorporating its instrumentation, especially its deep vocal pads, into its complex musical and metaphysical structure. Strangely, despite the mostly positive vibes throughout Along the Way, the stronger pieces contain the most darkness.
The relative darkness of Part II (containing “Silent Weapons” and “The Instinct”) gives way to the more personal Part III (containing “The Human Condition (Song For My Father),” “For the Friendships (Along the Way),” and “Arrival Begins the Next Departure”). Lyrically, it’s in the first two tracks of this section that McGuire displays the most sincerity, focusing on compassion, one of the most crucial elements of any sort of enlightenment. But the lyrics and self-examination here ring a bit shallow, and musically this section suffers from cliché melodies and beats. It’s perhaps the most eminently palatable of all McGuire’s work, but that quality is in part due to its cloying melodic basis and simple rhythmic structure. The most universal sounds and sentiments are often the most worn out. None of Along the Way is unpleasant or undercooked, but at scattered moments, its beauty gives way to preciosity. McGuire rescues the latter parts of the album (excepting the final track, which exhibits some of the same problems) with a more nuanced tone and a more selective set of overdubs.
Ultimately, Along the Way outlines a serious problem for anyone who wishes to spread enlightenment: how does one elevate mass consciousness out of the swamp of cynicism without succumbing to cliché? The struggle for the poetry that best communicates the power and necessity of individual and societal refinement requires renewal as constantly as the language of its audience evolves. Music’s extra-logical tongue may offer a powerful utopian force in this struggle, but taste and mass appeal rarely meet on its plane. Along the Way is an ambitious project, one that reveals McGuire’s devotion both to craft and to the study of the soul. Its problems arise not out of any dearth of talent or skill, but out of its unfiltered sincerity and relentless positivity — qualities that are hardly problematic in themselves. It represents a hopeful development (though not a total success) in the intersection between spiritual growth and musical aesthetics. As McGuire himself advises in the notes, “Any true clarity brings with it the realization that it is always the first step.”