In a musical landscape of creeping conformity, with acts encouraged to consolidate their core appeal and stick to their generic limitations, it takes artistic courage to suddenly swerve off in a new direction – something the enigmatic Texan combo Midlake have done with each successive album.
Even more unusually, their progress has been counter-chronological in its musical references, with the Radiohead/Grandaddy stylings of their debut Bamnan & Slivercock supplanted by the engaging West Coast/Fleetwood Mac harmony-rock of their 2006 breakthrough The Trials Of Van Occupanther, and that in turn now replaced by the British folk-rock influences of The Courage Of Others – a move akin to the way in which British kids of the 1960s appropriated American blues and made it into something of their own.
In effecting this latest change, Midlake have altered their entire approach, switching from the keyboard-dominated sound of previous albums to one almost entirely reliant on guitars and flutes – yet somehow, without abandoning their essential Midlake-ness. This is due partly to songwriter Tim Smith's distinctive mild baritone, and partly to his taste in chords and harmonies, familiar from Van Occupanther. Also retained from its predecessor are the affinities for nature and olden times, and a discomfiture with the materialistic direction of modern life: the monkish garb sported on the album cover is an indication of the bucolic asceticism and earthly purity underpinning numerous songs.
The protagonist who turns his back on greed and venery to walk the countryside alone in search of fellow souls, "a worthy village to land and start again", is certainly related to the fictional hermit-scientist Van Occupanther, but, Smith admits, more closely reflects his own attitudes, but the impossibility of his lonely path is acknowledged in a quote from Goethe in the preceding song: "Into the core of nature/No earthly mind can enter".
The succession of brooding minor-chord songs in which Smith underlines his position imposes a homogeneity which makes The Courage Of Others a concept album in which simple narrative continuity is replaced by a cycle of contemplation loosely structured around the changing seasons. It's a much more sombre work than usual in the desperate, please-love-me world of modern pop, having more in common with the likes of Leonard Cohen, Tim Buckley, Nick Drake and Espers, artists who appreciate the deeper resonance of melancholy. The result is an album that's like a dark cloak in which to envelop oneself, a comforting warmth to ward off life's tribulations. And the first truly great release of the year.
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