Sunday, January 31, 2010

In love with a dying Earth - Midlake 'The Courage of Others'

It was quite some months ago that Marty W sang his praises for Midlake’s album The Trials of Van Occupanther. I bought the album there and then, concurred with his admiration of it, revelled in the Texan quintet’s soft folk-rock, and have been meaning to blog about it here ever since.

But Midlake clearly were not waiting on the verdict of this blog to decide whether or not another album was a good idea and so, in the meantime, have produced The Courage of Others, a pensively beautiful album that grows like soft moss out of the autumnal ground laid by its predecessor, its textures danker, its colours darker.

But it’s not the moss that you find on the floor of a lush forest, but rather the moss that grows in old, cold places, for The Courage of Others paints a world that has grown tired, and the music seems to shed its leaves as it tells its story, stripped down, most of the time, to acoustic guitars and drums and Midlake’s exquisite soft sad harmonies, with electric guitars and keyboards appearing only here and there, shining silken light on the bare branches of the music – not to illuminate it so much as to allow it to cast shadows.

And yet it’s not that these songs are quite apocalyptic, or doom-laden. It’s rather as if they are weeping for a much loved Earth, and it’s this fondness for the Earth gives the music its warmth, even when it is at its saddest.

The album paints its picture in the first track, ‘Acts of Man’, where Tim Smith’s voice, featherlike but by no means weak, seems to fall to the ground, half floating like leaves, half falling like tears.

They are tears that weigh down more heavily, sobbing, through the electric guitars of ‘Winter Dies’ but even here, as everywhere on this album, the music always retains its gentle flow, its sense of resignation, if not quite resolution.

A more solid beat underpins ‘Children of the Grounds’, but it is less the stride of surety than the stomp of destruction, “where they jump on your back and sing/Leave an imprint on your shoulder blades”.

The album’s darkest moment comes in its penultimate title track, where deep tolling harmonies in the bass give way to a lonely, desolate flute that dances with a wailing electric guitar, leaving nothing but a sense of lost hope.

But the album finishes with ‘In the Ground’ where, unexpectedly, the music picks up, springing to a new, if fragile, life as a “rose wakens now in the joyful air, in the sun there among the ruined ones”. But it’s only a respite, not a reprieve, and we are told not that the end has been averted, but just that it “remains unseen” and, when the song, and the album, finishes with an ominous knell from the depths of the acoustic guitar, we know that the song’s final challenge to “Bring the town/From all her cries/From all her wounds/From her sighs/And she’ll try/Mending all she can” is put to us only because there is so very much at stake.

This is certainly a dark album, but not really a depressing one. The pictures it paints are beautiful, even in their bleakness. They are pictures of a weary, worn and waning world, but a world that, even when it is lamented, is still loved.

The Courage of Others is music that has been put together lovingly, tenderly, where its many threads, often delicate and vulnerable, its simple strands of sound, have been woven together in just the right way, so that they hold each other together in a fabric that, even in its simplicity, is rich and absorbing and enduring.

Belated thanks to Marty W for introducing me to Midlake.

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