Mikal Cronin – MCII

I’ve heard it said that reverb makes everything sound better. From dreamy mid-century crooning to the post-garage rock reinventions of Thee Oh Sees and surrounding scads of otherwise lost souls, it is clear that delay is here to stay, but at a certain point one has to ask if so-and-so would sound as catchy sans effects. Mikal Cronin and longtime cohort Ty Segall’s Reverse Shark Attack was an excellent joint venture, but as Segall’s latest efforts lean on heavier doses of fuzz and metallic riffs, Cronin moves in a direction weary of latter-day garage rock’s noise fix, by composing an effectively balanced arsenal of doubt and ebullient promise.

Mikal Cronin’s self-titled debut LP astounded with stark honesty, suffused with static and noise. For his Merge debut, MCII, he also collaborates with Segall and Charles Moothart, but this one more personally bears the stamp of the songwriter, with poppier production for his more methodic arrangements, including moods of chronic divergence. Likewise, Cronin’s lyrics surface as a constantly conflicted thought process. He doesn’t rest easily in one place and he refuses passivity, seeking not “apathy,” “sympathy,” or “a savior,” yet he still can’t deny that he would like “her” to pick his head up off the ground.

“Weight” opens with stark notes of piano, soon lifted by blue skies shining on his solitary path, resulting in a sunny introversion akin to Brian Wilson’s split between surfin’ and being a shut-in. Lyrics reflect a tension prone to wax romantic and fatalistic in the same breath: “No, be bolder, golden light for miles/ Sing for love in colder portions of my mind,” made warm and inviting by lushly arranged strings, piano resilience, and abundant harmonics. “Shout It Out” glides in with balmy focus countered by a sudden desire for immediacy, borrowing a tactic from Nirvana’s quiet/loud dynamic. The most assured tone pervades “Am I Wrong”’s head-first charge of determined guitar and plucky piano underpinnings. The ease and confident gallop of “See It My Way” recalls Throwing Muses across even terrain, with grittier scratches of early ’90s power pop and the scrawling whine of psychedelic guitar streaks. “Peace of Mind” is an alt-country lament of violin, languid stretches of slide guitar (K. Dylan and Petey Dammit of Thee Oh Sees, respectively) and plaintive vocals as charming as a Gram Parsons slice of Americana. The rawk apex, “Change,” decries ambiguity for an anthemic declaration and revelatory catharsis; lines like, “Just a little bit, just a little bit goes a long way” although desperately romantic, end with a lilting falsetto to beg away any doubtful sentiment.

BUT, enter dramatic shift in mood for the last three songs. The only track recorded alone at home, “Don’t Let Me Go,” puts aside assured independence, pleading for another to “be the light that guides me up and through the fog.” Will he ever find solace from the pain? Given the artistic ownership heard in such lines as “Can’t take this feeling from me,” it’s plain that he’s still soaking in the stultifying grip of lost love. The next to last song, “Turn Away,” although reaching decisiveness with the internal dialogue, “Is it all my fault? I wouldn’t think so,” emoting a rush of realization and acceptance, is followed with an otherwise mark of finality that trails less as a perfunctory piano ballad and more a melancholy ellipse of solitary proportions.

It has been noted by other writers that this album reads like a mid-life crisis or the developmental phase of a doubtful 20-something. Really, just a phase? This conflicted tension has pervaded each of his solo releases, and has remained elemental to his creative process, as heard here: “The heavy times are worth their weight in gold.” While comparisons to melancholy songwriter Elliott Smith have proven irresistible to some, Cronin’s storm clouds are not without an ochre lining. Thus, his conflicted tension is not just elemental, but vitally so.

Mikal Cronin