Camera Obscura

My Maudlin Career

(4AD; 2009)

By Calum Marsh | 29 April 2009

I once made tea for Tracyanne Campbell, which is exactly the sort of thing one might expect to do in the presence of Camera Obscura’s lead singer, if one assumes (as I often do) that bands are real-life versions of the characters in their songs. Camera Obscura’s songs are elegant and romantic, the characters within them forlorn, dejected, sometimes tragic. Much ado’s been made of the dubious notion of “authenticity” this year, but if people shit on Colin Meloy’s Renaissance adventures more readily than when Campbell goes on about dating sailors or looking pretty in Cathedral cities, it’s because Camera Obscura have always been less about characters or narratives than about the emotional conviction with which they’re told. It’s Maudlin, yeah, but it’s not musical theatre.

“If you were a season, you’d be in bloom,” Campbell croons on “You Told A Lie.” Yes, well, if Camera Obscura were a season, they’d be the dead of winter, one with traffic-halting snowstorms and in one of those northern towns that go without sunlight for weeks on end. My Maudlin Career, like every Camera Obscura album to date, is steeped in more emulsified sentimentality and liquid heartwarm than Campbell’s pre-gig English Breakfast, the entertainment value of which depends entirely on your tolerance for “cute.” And “cute,” by the way, is represented musically by an (over)abundance of horns! and strings! [emphasis in original], piled on and crammed in wall-of-sound-thick.

Camera Obscura seemed to have spent their formative days lending credence to Scottish stereotypes by cribbing If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996) and (presumably) caber-tossing, but Underachievers Please Try Harder (2003)‘s pilfering of Glasgowian indie hallmarks mostly ceased for the band’s superior follow-up, 2006’s Let’s Get Out of This Country. That was Triumphant with a capital-T and a giant fucking exclamation mark wherever one could fit, veering away from insular, twangy twee to emphatic pop (er, POP!, whee!); it was emotionally and phyiscally robust, especially on lead single “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken,” where wit met aplomb like Hume and an Irn-Bru. It was a shift in style (and quality) met with as much surprise as satisfaction, but the problem with drastic changes in tragectory is that they’re awfully tough to follow interestingly. And so now we get My Maudlin Career, the band’s fourth LP, which is just pretty good. There’s certainly nothing wrong with producing a pretty good album, and there’s very little wrong with My Maudlin Career, but it’s hard not to feel pangs of disappointment that it’s significantly less refreshing or exciting as their last outing.

Continuing their confusing tradition of front-loading their records, Maudlin starts out with “French Navy,” a pop gem about dusty libraries and heart-stealing sailors that you just can’t pin down (oh, those sailors!), about as charming and fun as “Lloyd,” if slightly less dramatic. “The Sweetest Thing” is similarly smooth, its strings and backing vocals not a touch too saccharine. It’s a great one-two punch to open the record—but then, sigh, it’s “You Told A Lie,” the requisite twangy pseudo-country jam. Camera Obscura do pop extravagance better than pared folk, and so the album’s richer tracks—“Swans,” “My Maudlin Career,” and the first two—invariably work best. I want less Travis, more Jesus and Mary Chain; less Alan Cumming, more Sean Connery; less Caledonian, more Innis & Gunn; less Braveheart, more…uh, Trainspotting? Point being: hollow tracks like “Other Towns And Cities,” built around the slightest twang of guitar and Campbell’s singing-in-another-room-through-a-cement-wall vocals, bore. Album-closer “Honey In The Sun,” by contrast, knocks it out of the goddamn park with its enormous chorus horn line and sense of whimsy and wonder. Sad songs please immensely when they’re this full of life.

If “adorable” patronizes, I apologize. But My Maudlin Career is just such a uniformly endearing record. It’s sentimental, yes, but pleasantly so, charming in its own little way. I hope Camera Obscura make a record that’s as good all the way through as this one is most of the time. But even if they keep operating at this level I’ll be satisfied, finding myself as I do time and time again swept up into the romance and heartbreak and sentiment of their Scottish chamber pop.