“…we should say that eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard. Eloquence supposes an audience; the peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet’s utter unconsciousness of a listener. Poetry is feeling confessing itself to itself…”
– from “What it Poetry?” by John Stuart Mill
“The songs are all dialogues with myself.”
– Mikal Cronin, on MCII
I can’t say much about how Mikal Cronin was brought up, but John Stuart Mill was raised on a steady diet of Jeremy Bentham — “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong” — and yet it was poetry, steeped so deeply in the irrationality of art, that saved his life. More specifically, it was William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, and Mill was able to argue this specific style of poetry into his philosophical ideals: for him, these poems served a rational purpose, furthering the culture of feeling. Dissimilar to much of the music in the San Francisco garage rock scene, the songs on Mikal Cronin’s MCII are purposeful in a way that any Romantic would measure as “right,” for Cronin takes steps away from his arm’s length, fuzz-driven musical upbringing and moves towards a pop proper rationale.
Even with MCII’s popular appeal, it’s unlikely that Cronin will easily escape the shadow of his association with Ty Segall. I’d argue, though, that they aren’t standing in a close enough vicinity anymore to worry about shadows: the major distinction is that while Segall is heard, Cronin is overheard. Cronin must have known that an electric guitar fed through a fuzz pedal will always be more eloquent than poetic when he started writing mostly on acoustic guitar and piano, but there’s more to what makes his music sound whipsered than the volume: no matter the fuzz-content of the song I’m listening to — even when Cronin’s at his noisiest (“See It My Way”) or when Segall’s at his most subtle (“Goodbye Bread”) — I always picture Segall rocking out on a stage and Cronin rocking out to his full-length bedroom mirror. It’s the difference between swagger and sincerity, between frontman and sidekick, between being told what you want and being given what you want: it’s the difference between music that makes you feel cool, and music that makes you feel good.
“Accordingly, [the language really spoken by men], arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression…”
– from “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” by William Wordsworth
Part of how Cronin succeeds in making the listener feel good are his failures: the outsized ambition and the pushing of his practical capacities remind the listener than they’re being spoken to by an everyman. This is most notable in his gentler moments, where he takes the standardized/permanent musical forms and approaches of genre mainstays — from Elliott Smith’s folk-plus arrangements (“Peace of Mind”) to Jeff Mangum’s buoyantly dramatic progressions (“Piano Mantra”) — and executes them humbly, but more importantly, sloppily: there are moments in these songs that are far too “off” to be overlooked by a young man who recently earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Music, so they must have been intentionally left unaltered — they too must serve a purpose. These moment are awkward, yes, but it’s the kind of awkwardness that you experience when you walk in on your little brother playing air guitar to Nirvana (or a song heavily influenced by them, i.e., “Change”); it’s the awkwardness of exposing something excited and sincere that was never meant to be witnessed. Cronin knows that there’s nothing charming about strict professionalism: in music, there’s no such thing as too good to be true, but music exists that feels too perfected to be honest, too effected to be affecting, too accurate to be speaking the real language of men.
“[These] poems are extant, written upon more humble subjects, and in a still more naked and simple style, which have continued to give pleasure from generation to generation.”
– from “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” by William Wordsworth
Something happened to Cronin’s musical language between his debut full-length and MCII. Actually, two things happened: he released a telling 7-inch through Goner, and he signed to indie juggernaut Merge. The Goner single’s A-side features a Pavement-esque distance and a cool unwillingness to fulfill the desires of the listener, while the B-Side is as feyly melodic and no-frills welcoming as anything from Slumberland. This transition is what led him, like the similarly-minded Fresh & Onlys before him, from Trouble In Mind to a bigger label. On Merge, he’ll be fittingly bookended by bands like The Clientele and Dinosaur Jr.: with his psychedelia less oblique, his lyrics more concrete, and his desire to please more present than it was with any of his prior associates, Cronin puts pleasure first and hopes for the longevity enjoyed by his musical antecedents.
“Faith and change is something you can find.”
– from “Change” by Mikal Cronin
Cronin may cite Elliott Smith as a major influence, and sure, you can hear it in almost every song on the LP, but only stylistically: Cronin contemplates life and the questions it presents; Smith contemplates death and ultimately answers his questions. Cronin also knows that a toolkit full of questions is fundamentally more useful that a toolkit full of answers. He may have named “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” his favorite song of all time for how it makes him “extremely happy,” but there’s more than one way to happiness, and Mikal Cronin and Brian Wilson have more in common regarding delivery than impact or ambitions: if Wilson’s SMiLE was a “teenage symphony to God,” then the songs on Cronin’s MCII are crescent wrenches for the college-bent, and more than His, his “open arms/ are giving me hope.”