Mark Mulcahy returns from his past lives on his latest solo album. After spending a few years immersed in a sort of career retrospective with his old bands Polaris and Miracle Legion, the western Massachusetts singer comes sauntering back with The Possum in the Driveway, his first album of new material since 2013.
Mulcahy got his start fronting Miracle Legion in New Haven in the early ’80s, and that band evolved into Polaris, which probably remains his best-known project. Polaris served as the house band for Nickelodeon’s mid-’90s cult classic The Adventures of Pete & Pete, contributing theme song “Hey Sandy” and other tunes that appeared in the show. The band fell apart in 1996 when the series was canceled, and Mulcahy turned to a solo career that he put on hold while the old gang(s) got back together following his 2013 album Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You.
Now that the reunion shows have just about run their course, Mulcahy is back to his solo grind—and Possum was definitely a grind. Beset by problems including a recording studio gutted by fire, the album took years to make. It’s a testament to Mulcahy’s perseverance, or resilience, that these 11 new songs sound so effortless. They’re definitely his most wide-ranging. Though his jangly indie-pop sound is still in evidence on songs like “Jimmy” and “Hollywood Never Forgives,” there’s a more eclectic mix of styles at work here. “Catching Mice” is an off-kilter bossa nova that scurries along, augmented by trilling flute and backing vocal harmonies, while melancholy opener “Stuck on Something Else” consists mostly of his voice over a spare Fender Rhodes part.
Mulcahy has always had a low-key eccentric streak, but his weird side roams more freely here. The album is full of oddball lyrical touches that he delivers without breaking character. “Well hello, hello, hello, hello again,” he leers to start “I Am the Number 13,” acting as the epitome of the unreliable narrator over a slow tango rhythm and drifts of seedy trumpet. He invents a debauched rock star persona to accompany the shambling blue-eyed soul of “The Fiddler,” offering “black girls and champagne and a waterbed, if you need one” like Mick Jagger circa 1972. “Cross the Street” is just as evocative, with a propulsive backbeat anchoring horns, electric piano and scuzzy guitar leads as Mulcahy issues cryptic warnings, about thwarted plans and also the weather: “Better button up your raincoat, man/it’s cold for July,” he sings.
Sure, it’s idiosyncratic, but it works for Mulcahy, in the same way it does for someone like Tom Waits. Letting the nutty stuff bubble to the surface, and pairing it with Mulcahy’s knack for writing melodies that pop into your head at 3 a.m., makes this Mulcahy’s least predictable album: there’s something memorable and unexpected lurking around every corner.