I thought, for just a minute, I'd get back to what I started this blog to do: write about music. There's been a lot of good music released this summer (and I've found a few albums from the past few years that aren't too shabby), which means I've spent even more time than usual listening to music (I'm not complaining).
One album to which I keep returning (and that has actually surprised me with how much I've genuinely enjoyed it) is Mogwai's Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (always a way with titles, those Scottish lads). Now, any time Mogwai releases an album I'm expecting to love it (I have loved [more or less] everything they've released since I first got my grubby little hands on an import copy of Young Team for $40 [!!!] in grade nine), but I have to admit I've been waiting for a change from them. Their last album, The Hawk Is Howling, had bits of everything they do well (and opener "I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead," despite the comma splice, is top five [at least] material for them), but it also seemed a lot like the album before that, Mr. Beast, which seemed a lot like the album before that, Happy Songs for Happy People, which was itself a slight evolution from its predecessor, Rock Action. Given that Rock Action came out in 1999, it was starting to seem a little tired, especially when the major stylistic "advances" were "Glasgow Mega Snake" and "Batcat." While I enjoy both songs (though the former is far superior), they also one-dimensional compared to earlier volume workouts. Indeed, outside of "I'm Jim Morrison..." the songs I'd started to pay the most attention to on Mogwai albums were relatively minor numbers (and I don't just mean key here) like "Local Authority" and "Kings Meadow," which seemed to follow on from songs on Mr. Beast like "Acid Food," "Team Handed," and "Emergency Trap," smaller scale, pretty and mournful. Indeed, where Mr. Beast's second half had been full of these kinds of treasures, The Hawk Is Howling closed with four of its longest tracks, none of which are particularly interesting (though "Thank You Space Expert" is pleasant enough). That seemed to be their limit these days, working in the background of my commute: the kind of music that sounds great while looking out the window of a bus because it's scaled to that size. The longer songs felt hollow, blustery, cold somehow, largely affectless.
I remember a comment from Rob Mitchum's review of Sonic Youth's Murray Street: "Journalistic integrity aside, it gives me great pleasure to be able to like a new Sonic Youth album without having to force it, and to finally give their back catalog a nice, long rest." This is how I feel about Mogwai's latest. I didn't expect to feel this way, though. When I heard that Mogwai had a new album coming out, I have to admit that my first emotion was not excitement, but dread at having to force my way through it, at having to like songs that did nothing for me. The first taste of Hardcore, "Rano Pano," was encouraging in its disorienting sound (I know it's a loud song, but nothing about it seems all that loud or heavy), and the edit of "How to Be a Werewolf" that came out soon after was even better. I was nervous when I saw some of the negative reviews long time fans were giving to it ("Mexican Grand Prix" and "George Square Thatcher Death Party" in particular), but given that the criticism was directed at how "not-Mogwai" those songs sounded, I was intrigued. To be sure, The Hawk Is Howling had its "not Mogwai" song, "The Sun Smells Too Loud," but it was the worst thing on the album, a song I like to pretend the band never wrote. Imagine my surprise, then, when I put the album on for the first time and liked it. I mean, genuinely and truly, without any reservations, liked it. There are a few songs I could do without, ("White Noise," "Death Rays" [the latter a fan favourite for some reason?]) and they've yet to grow on me, but the rest of it is so much fun. I didn't think it was possible for Mogwai to surprise me like this anymore.
I love the momentum of "Mexican Grand Prix," and it might have the best vocals ever featured on Mogwai song. The "minor" songs on the album, "Letters to the Metro" and "Too Raging to Cheers" are wonderfully evocative, with the slide guitar on the former calling to mind Earth circa Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method, and the violin on the latter expanding the band's emotional range quite a bit. Earth returns as a reference point on the closer "You're Lionel Richie," a song as patient and obvious as "Miami Morning Coming Down," and just as lovely. It's also the first "epic" in the tradition of "Like Herod," "Mogwai Fear Satan," "Christmas Steps," "My Father My King," etc., to interest me since "My Father My King." The sample at the start is as wonderful as the one at the start of "Yes! I Am a Long Way From Home." The largely unaccompanied guitar bit from about 2:06 to 3:46 is surprisingly great at building tension, and that pause, oh, that pause. It might be my favourite moment in a song this year.* I wish the second half of the song would go on forever (even though I'm happy with exactly where it finishes). As for "How to Become a Werewolf," I can say that it is similar to "Yes! I Am a Long Way From Home" in the best way: it features an absolutely euphoric guitar climax that justifies those words at the start of the latter, "If someone told me Mogwai are the stars, I would not object."
They've got a new EP on the way on my birthday, and based on its first track, they're continuing their current hot streak.
*Except for the fact it comes after "How to Become a Werewolf," and the high note that Stuart hits at 4:28, which is just perfection. The music of the spheres.