Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career
Despite building a considerable reputation since forming in 1996, I'm ashamed to say I'm a newcomer to the cult of Glasgow's Camera Obscura. I'd heard the name in passing but nothing compelled me to investigate any further. I think comparisons to the achingly-twee Belle & Sebastian tainted my view, made me go ewww. But recently our stars aligned and I agreed to meet them in an abandoned carpark to see if we should swap numbers...
Musically My Maudlin Career (great title) mostly mines the depth of sound McAlmont & Butler were chipping away at on Yes but abandoned as an impossible dream. For the most part it's a big band wall of sound, sweeping Nick Drake strings, Ronnette melodies and conjures the sort of lush '60's melodramatic pop that Duffy and Winehouse would sell their Mothers for.
From the first whistle they're playing to win. Lead single French Navy is one of 2009's brightest 45s, worthy of Johnny Boy or St Etienne. The music's a rainbow but the lyrics are the real pot of gold, “I spent a week in a dusty library, waiting for some words to jump at me”. Its knock-out punch, “I wanted to control it, but love I couldn't hold it”, beautifully captures our eternally foolish struggle to cage 'The Big L'. Tracyanne Campbell's writing throughout My Maudlin Career is glorious, effortlessly trading innocent bright eyes with Beautiful South grade acid tongue wit, “you with your dietary restrictions, said you loved me with a lot of conviction”. The escapist Swans also boasts single potential with its killer music box riff (echoing bizarrely The Bunnymen's The Cutter) and razor sharp humour, “There are flowers in my house, I bought them myself”.
It's an album in love with Americana and Atlantic soul, but the very British twists always save it from pastiche. Smokey Robinson could've sung The Sweetest Thing but then Tracyanne spins a line like “Would I walk a hundred miles for a glimpse of your northern smile”. The album also has an almost '50's romantic ideology - all “going steady”, dates and crushes who “make me go woo” - but it creates a refreshingly timeless, classic appeal.
Despite the big band theatrics there are corners for tears on my pillow melancholia. Careless Love is born a lonely ballroom waltz with only a mirrorball for company but grows to an orchestral crescendo worthy of John Barry. Its emphatic conclusion “ I don't think that we can really be friends, but I'll try again” neatly encapsulates the entire album. Similarly there's the forlorn James, a deadringer for Dylan's Most of the Time, “I got scared by just how hard I fell....Oh James you broke me”. It's so endearingly childlike it's impossible not to reflect some kind of empathy. Sad songs say so much, etc.
Alongside the Memphis cool, the brightest ghost here is Patsy Cline with her collision of youthful idealism and gritty reality. Away With Murder opens like Lee Marvin's Wandrin' Star but we're soon walking after midnight searchin' for a soulmate, “I have been lonely too like you”. Just that old friend heartache on a moonlit stroll under twinkling stars. As low as it gets it's always looking up and dreaming, “Maybe I could sell kisses? In Portland I tried my pretty hand at fishing”. Patsy's spirit also trails through You Told A Lie, another tale of broken love, “Are my eyes the coldest blue?...'cause I'm stuck with them and they're stuck on you”.
It's not all dreaming. Forests & Sands captures the morning-after reality check, holding someone's hand but trying to remember what it was exactly you wanted. Other Towns & Cities meanwhile sways like an Appalachian campfire lullaby designed to ward off phantoms from unfaithful teenage dreams, “You're in another town or city, you mean nothing to me tonight”.
“This maudlin career must come to an end I don't want to be sad again”.The breaking point title track is my highlight. Imagine Morrissey had realised life was passing him by and yelled out of the window “Sod this celibacy lark, who's up for it?”. In terms of cinematics it's the moment of clarity, the revelation, the turning round of the car. It's John Cusack outside Ione Skye's bedroom window holding up that giant boombox ..“In your eyes there's a sadness enough to kill the both of us”.
Finale Honey In The Sun burns like that Springsteen line, “It's a town full of losers and I'm pulling out of here to win”. The cold night has passed, the morning sun feels warm and the endorphins are kicking in. Although initially jarring, it feels like the right choice of happy ending. “I wish my heart was cold, but it's warmer than before”. It's driving the 'what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger' path but wise enough to know they'll always be scars to remind you.
My Maudlin Career is so immaculately produced and performed it's impressive to learn all of its songs are originals from one songwriter as they sound so immediate, familiar, fully formed. Admittedly, there's nothing technically groundbreaking here, but it's so honest, heartfelt and lovingly crafted it feels pedantic to claw at the flaws.
The exhausted but passionate voice of My Maudlin Career is of someone who's had their heart broken by a million sledgehammers but still believes. It's an unflinchingly open, soulful record from someone who'd rather take the hits of Cupid's Arrows than feel nothing - “You've got me pouring myself all over this page...the pain was too much of an incentive”. For the majority of us who've survived their own film of heartbreak, loss of faith and hope regained, this makes a comforting soundtrack. It's a record to be played loud enough to fill your house with sunshine - and to borrow one of its lines “I've bought my ticket I'm sold at last”.