Failure and famous fans have dogged Mark Mulcahy all along. In the Eighties, his band Miracle Legion were compared to and praised by REM. A teenage Thom Yorke found them life-changing, later declaring Mulcahy's voice "the most beautiful I've ever heard".
But Miracle Legion never made the big time, all but expiring on a tax-loss label that perversely prevented them releasing records. It's the sort of luck that made Mulcahy write "He Self Defeater", one of the all-time picks of another fan, Nick Hornby, in his book 31 Songs.
More pertinent than such near-fame by association, though, is the unsettling emotional balance Mulcahy has achieved on his most recent work, In Pursuit of Your Happiness. It's a terrain not quite like any other songwriter's, humanly sympathetic yet coldly realistic. There's a frozen bitterness, warmed by the sweet voice that so affected Yorke.
He begins tonight with a brace of songs from his new album. "In Pursuit of Your Happiness" describes excessive, destructive pleasure, then "Cookie Jar" warns an ex-lover: "preserve yourself". There's an enjoyable hardness, made digestible by the odd likeability of Mulcahy in person: he looks like a pleasantly grotesque Tim Burton character. A background of glowing stars and candelabras are the only other distractions for a packed, attentive crowd. So when Mulcahy unfurls a Curtis Mayfield falsetto on "I Have Patience", his gaping mouth and lolling tongue are unpleasantly hard to miss.
Mulcahy's fabled voice isn't showily exceptional. It's a sweetly effective instrument for delivering his defeated broadsides, such as "I Just Shot Myself in the Foot Again". His band play it with delicate modesty, a three-guitar strum giving way to melancholy violin, xylophone chimes, and pedal steel.
"G.O.D.", played with booming, fuzzed-up attack, is a Mulcahy attempt at hard rocking, but it doesn't convince. The tale of inappropriate relationships in "Pasadena Love Story" draws laughs before "Hey Self Defeater", that hymn to human frailty, lets us finish with a sense of liberating communal failure: the Mulcahy effect in miniature.