Camera Obscura My Maudlin Career(4AD) Buy it from Insound
There’s an awful lot of music out there; too much music in fact. Seeing as albums are currently released at a rate roughly equivalent to three a day, it’s impossible to listen to and digest them all. This is clearly a shame as it means that the album that could change your life will never reach you or what you would deem an absolute, undisputed masterpiece will forever be consigned to the bargain bin. So, it’s important to start your album well, to have something that will grab the listener’s attention and make them want to revisit your set of songs again and again until they’re fully embedded in the consciousness.
On My Maudlin Career, Camera Obscura set out to achieve this in the best possible fashion. It takes around three seconds to be utterly transfixed by opening track, French Navy: a song built on irresistible hooks and perfectly complimented by a gorgeous string section. Producer Jari Haapalainen is clearly picking up where he left off on Camera Obscura’s last long player, 2006’s Let’s Get Out Of This Country.
Repeated listens to My Maudlin Career reveal that Camera Obscura completely inhabit their own universe. Despite their Glaswegian origins, their sound is so packed full of vintage Hollywood glamour that you’d think they were from California were it not for Tracyanne Campbell’s Scottish burr that occasionally creeps in undetected.
The high standard set by French Navy is maintained throughout the album; Careless Love has a sweeping key change and a beautiful middle eight, while The Sweetest Thing is just as catchy as Let’s Get Out Of This Country’s title track. Camera Obscura - and lead singer Tracyanne Campbell in particular - are a sensitive bunch and have clearly loved and lost. The lyrical content of My Maudlin Career heavily reflects this whilst also hinting at a vulnerable naivety and an optimistic streak that suggest that they’ll always believe in true love, no matter what.
While French Navy is all pomp and vigour, subsequent tracks gradually become more steeped in the painful side of love, best symbolised in the title track. Delicate piano octaves frame Campbell’s laments: “I’m not a child, I know we’re not going steady” and “They say I’m too kind and sentimental, like you can catch affection.” Following track Forests and Sands would be whiny and indulgent in the wrong hands, but Campbell’s heartfelt vocal transforms it into something genuinely affecting.
Unfortunately, all this heartbreak does become kind of wearing. Individually, each track is musically superb (although Swans sails pretty close to the wind with its twee guitar and glockenspiel twin assault), but a continuing feeling of despondency means My Maudlin Career can sometimes be difficult listening. Album closer Honey in the Sun is fantastic, but a case in point; its outwardly cheery demeanour and horn stabs recall ABC at their peak. However, its refrain (“I wish my heart was a cold as the morning dew / But it’s as warm as saxophones and honey in the sun for you”) which would be a paean to love on any other album, sounds tinged with forlornness and regret thanks to the theme of the preceding ten tracks.
Whilst we’re being critical (as is the record critic’s lot), a change of pace here and there wouldn’t go amiss either. Whilst Let’s Get Out of this Country featured the zip and bombast of If Looks Could Kill and the languid Country Mile, everything on My Maudlin Career remains frustratingly mid-tempo. There’s nothing wrong with this on a track-by-track basis, but it means the album lacks a certain something.
These are minor quibbles though, as My Maudlin Career is a wonderful set of songs and can deservedly sit alongside Let’s Get Out Of This Country while showcasing how far Camera Obscura have come since their patchy yet charming début, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi. Album making isn’t a precise science (it’s not really a science at all, for that matter), but a couple of slower ones, a couple of faster ones and a couple of happier ones would elevate My Maudlin Career from a good album to a sensational one.