I was going to say something about how Camera Obscura makes old stuff sound new, but that’s not really accurate. Nothing on My Maudlin Career sounds new to me at all. What Tracyanne Campbell and company do is make old stuff sound awesome, which is usually a better thing to do with old stuff anyway.
Granted, not too many people are doing the kind of orchestral pop that Campbell is so adept at, although My Maudlin Career could be seen as a close cousin to She & Him’s also-lovely Volume 1, but that’s hardly a point against it when you consider what it means: both albums feature women with incredible voices and clearly deep record collections. And Tracyanne Campbell could probably mentor Zooey Deschanel in the broken-hearted songstress department. She’s an old pro and she shows it, singing as she does on the title track, “You used to kiss my forehead/ now your kisses give me a concussion” and later adding that she doesn’t want to be sad anymore.
Which is really a shame because Campbell is very good at being sad and not being emo; there’s a sense of sarcasm to her most heartbroken barbs and it actually reminds me of what good blues singers used to do (I say “used to do” because the blues has mostly been co-opted by Midwestern white kids like Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd and they are probably the white people George Carlin was talking about when he observed, “White people fucked up the blues”), which is convey a sense of laughing to keep from crying. Am I connecting Tracyanne Campbell to Robert Johnson? Why the fuck not? Listen to some of his tunes – the dude knew that sometimes, when shit is really really bad, you have to laugh a little. Campbell would add that, if you laugh a little and make your heartache catchy, you can share it with the world without sounding like an emo twat. By which I mean, of course, Billy Corgan.
My Maudlin Career is a musically bright album, bursting with horns and strings and drums, making Camera Obscura sound like the house band on the emotional equivalent of the Titanic. But it’s a brilliant tactic because (are you getting this, emo kids?) if lines like “if the blood that’s pumping through my veins could freeze/ like the river in Toronto/ then I’d be pleased” were delivered in a mopier context, this album would be unlistenable and, indeed, infuriating. As it is, Campbell’s romantic trail of dead is strewn across bouncing, indelible arrangements making My Maudlin Career simultaneously one of the catchiest and saddest albums you’ll hear this year.
Assuming Campbell isn’t bullshitting her audience (and I don’t think she is), she’s clearly been romantically fucked over and its led her to shield herself from what might be productive relationships (on the catchy-as-hell album closer “Honey in the Sun,” she sings, “I’m in training to become as cold as ice/ I’m determined to protect my feelings disguise” before launching into the chorus, which states that no matter how hard she tries to be cold, she’s all heated up for whoever. Good luck to that guy) and I’m not gonna attempt to go into the psychology much here because 1) I’m not a psychologist and 2) from a musical perpsective, it’s really goddamn fascinating.
For all of the musical ideas packed into every second of My Maudlin Career, its best track is the austere “Other Towns and Cities”, which is mostly a quiet electric guitar and Campbell’s incredible voice singing, “These words are weak/ and to your dislike/ but you’ll never believe them/ so I guess it’s all right,” the kinda thing that, again, would be dangerous in less capable hands. But rather than wailing about how she’s not okay, Campbell earnestly pours her sorrow into the song and then ends it with the kiss-off of “you mean nothing to me tonight.”
Camera Obscura is, at the end of the day, a blueprint for the kind of pop that ought to be on the radio. I know I take this particular drum out and beat the shit out of it fairly frequently, and it’s not like I’m saying I want everyone in the world to listen to everything that I love because then idiots would like the things I like and that would really damage my sense of cultural superiority. But – on the other hand – I sometimes think that, if the pop stations were more Camera Obscura, more New Pornographers and the rock stations were more Hold Steady and more My Morning Jacket, it would be some kind of signal that humanity had achieved some much-needed revolution in consciousness and I really would be willing to sacrifice my sense of cultural superiority (much as I love it) if it meant that I could also shed, brick by brick, the wall of misanthropy I’ve erected to shield myself from people who refer to Dave Matthews by his first name only or people who tell me that a band is great because it sold a lot of records, and/or people who think John Mayer is good. Although one could make a compelling argument that the Misanthropy Shield is as much for you as it is for me.