From his days with Miracle Legion and then Polaris, Mark Mulcahy has always had a laid-back, summer-porch pop styling that often betrays his complicated lyrics. On The Gus, Mulcahy unfolds a map of any neighborhood in America and then tears it apart, piece by piece, revealing a quiet underbelly of want and despair, of neediness and love in tiny truths and microscopic ficions.
The opening track “Wicked World” was allegedly inspired by George Saunders’ short stories and it shows strongest right here, as a domestic tragedy unfolds in a slow heartbreak of a duet featuring Rain Phoenix. Saunders’ short stories are often inspired by the disparity between hope and reality, and the simple act of taking the dog for a walk after dinner—“save me a piece of pie,” Mulcahy mentions as the narrator—becomes the scene of a fatal accident. Mulcahy takes his time with the song, creating an aching tension that lingers after the final note as dissipated.
Lead single “Taking Baby Steps” sandwiches heavy guitars around Mulcahy’s bleating voice, leaving them the first few lines alone before crashing back. Lyrically, we find Mulcahy stumbling and stretching over forgiveness of some long-ago crime: “As great as you are / You don’t have to change my mind / It’s not like I hate you / It’s not like I’m blind.” Meanwhile, “Later For The Box” is a scene-setter that sees the narrator get lemonade, chat with a neighbor and make dinner. We hear every second of this sweetly melodic micro-fiction, which creates a delicious anxiety that never quite resolves. But that’s okay; not everything has to end like the fatal crash that finishes “Wicked World.” It’s up to us, the listener, to decide what awaits when you untie the “candy cane string” and the song, a patient hum driven by light, jazzy percussion, never betrays our emotions one way or the other.
There’s a 1930s pulp pastiche that lays like wet sand over the springtime ballad “Daisy Marie,” where Mulcahy sings, “You try to break into the bank of my love/but you ain’t nothin’ but a little small-time crook.” Offbeat love songs – even when that love is on its way out – have always been Mulcahy’s bread and butter, from “She is Staggering” to “Love’s The Only Thing That Shuts Me Up,” the latter of which’s organ provides a delightful piece of atmosphere. The song would be fine without it, but when it sweeps, high and winding and majestically breezy, it lifts the song beyond the playful guitar riff that carries it forward.
Opening with a simple, church-like piano, “Mr. Bell” is a parable from the point of view of a
Trump supporter, disguised enough to last long after his tenure in the White House will end:
“the best things happen to all the best people” is the characteristic tip-off. But with so many of these types of songs being written, from Franz Ferdinand’s “Demagogue” to Eminem’s “Campaign Speech” to Fiona Apple’s “Tiny Hands,” nothing about “Mr. Bell” stands out as particularly insightful or interesting. Yes, we get it, his supporters love him—“You’re doing so well, Mr. Bell/you’ve got it all and they don’t even have a pot to piss in,” Mulcahy writes—but it’s hard to tell if the motivation for the song is designed to elicit empathy or distaste. It doesn’t give us enough about these people for the former, and the latter, well, that’s fish in a barrel.
Mulcahy’s sound hasn’t evolved much from his days in Miracle Legion or Polaris—it has the effect of a flannel shirt that has learned to play guitar and is easy to listen to, but at times, hard to grip, such as the hook-less “A Long Time Ago.” Nothing here is particularly inventive, but the songs all hold together like a portrait of a town; each track has a distinct character and narrative without ever falling into the sticky trap of a story song. To his credit—and likely again inspired by reading Saunders—Mulcahy comes across as your friendly neighborhood songwriter, documenting the surreal nature of life without ever crossing the boundary between subject and narrator. He is not present to the song, but merely the vehicle with which it is delivered.
Mulcahy’s voice retains the same unmistakable nasally-drawl, while The Gus’s production is marked by a minor detachment between the performers and the audience, remaining soft around the edges and thankfully lacking the temptation to overproduce or make slick what must remain quiet. It gives it the effect of being recorded in a library, surrounded by wood and paper, a proper theoretical setting for an album of such lofty lyrics and low-fi melodies.
With the exception of “Daisy Marie” and parts of the 70s-esque “What If I Go Off With Bob,” the songs are all, musically speaking, easily digestible to a casual listener, albeit with a darkness lingering underneath many of them that creates a fascinating discovery phase for the listener willing to peel back the layers. But what The Gus really has going for it is that it can serve as an entry to Mulcahy as easily as it can be enjoyed by longtime fans: a solid, if unspectacular entry to his lengthy back catalogue. It doesn’t deviate from his trademark formula, a style that’s worked for him throughout his career, but it never betrays it either.