Happy Songs for Happy People
Rock Action/PIAS Recordings (UK)

tis blasphemy to say it, but I will. Every Mogwai album, with the odd exception of their singles collection Ten Rapid, disappoints me. Inconsistency; a struggle to recognise the gulf between their presence in the recording studio and their live show; the slight vulnerability to pretension; a need to balance the storm with the calm - there's always something missing or ajar. So you think I'm a Mogwai-ambiguous or a Mogwai-hater? You're wrong. They're my favourite band. Like, in the whole wide world. I would crawl on poison tipped nails and broken glass concealed in fields of shit and pestilence to see them live.

I hate the way the seen-it-all critics hear senseless, messy crap where real beauty resides. They can never understand the search for dynamism in noise, because somehow that ain't clever, it's just too easy. And, in that respect, this album may bore more people than any that came before. It's not because it's worse. No. It's because it sounds like the same old Mogwai. And what could be better? These songs sound like the same - the same doleful bass and frenetic guitar. The almost identical soar, swell and the release. They sound constricted by their past. These are still aubades and battle hymns. Music played in cathartic anger or quiet reflection. Nothing has really changed, and casual fans may have reached a certain tolerance level.

In retrospect (even to a diehard), the old albums' faults become obvious. Young Team, though punctured by the almighty duo of “Like Herod” and “Mogwai Fear Satan”, was flabby. CODY was way too long. And Rock Action seemed too subtle for its own good. Of course I'm talking relatively. At the time I gave the last two glowing write-ups when reviewing them. I was wrong on both counts. I had let my loyalty afflict my impartiality. But they're still Mogwai albums. THAT'S MOGWAI.

But this time round I will cast a cold, unflinching eye. What do I say? This is set filler for the new tour. Yeah, they'll always play “Fear Satan”, “Ex-Cowboy”, “Xmas Steps”, “Helicon 1”, “Herod”, “My Father, My King”. That's three-quarters of the set at least. That's what the fans pay to see. That's what the reviewers remember when they're really reviewing their latest album. How could you say anything bad about a band that plays THOSE songs? I detect, however, that the critics are also ready to pounce and dig the claws in; saying Mogwai are struggling to come to terms with musical progression, so singularly have they got their signature music down pat, achieving a retirement-like stasis, inviting the age-old critique: “Where do they go from here?” The truth lies somewhere between these two distinct schools of thought.

Rock Action's restraint is chucked out the window. Of that there is no doubt from the off. “Hunted by a Freak” begins with the same dark but stately riffs they stole from Slint and have made their own, then launches the crystallised swell of guitar Godspeed You Black Emperor have made so cruel and magnificent, but which Do Say Make Think have used like illiterate dullards. These riffs are the musical equivalent of chemical catalysts. They remain the unchanging currency that makes the post-rock faithful’s world go round. Some use them well, others not so much. Oh, can you hear the mournful violin (another Mogwai signature, as redolent of rain and depression soaked Scottish streets as deep fried Mars Bars)? As the opener, it announces 'we're back and we can still swell with the best of them'. It has pure melody and a singular power. A well-loved friend has returned. You just know the album is going to be glorious.

Yet, let's forget the desolation of “Moses? I Amn't”, symptomatic of something Aphex Twin or Matt Elliott may have thought of doing, but completely devoid of their strange charm; grist to the cliche mill, when we consider that almost every post-rocker band always feel duty bound to take it down a gear the next song once they have upped the volume levels. Live, they make for far more interesting diversions. On the album they come dangerously close to the banal.

Then there's “Kids Will Be Skeletons”. Now I like this. The chords twinkle like distant stars. The drums come in sluggishly: tuh-tuh-tuh. The background builds to a helter skelter rush, whilst maintaining its essential prettiness. This is how I imagine music to be for a world full of hope and beauty. Clear night skies and glistening constellations, and waking suns slowly dawning on desert plains are what I see when I hear it.

“Killing all the Flies” begins quietly. Quel surprise. There's also the ghostly vocoder shimmer. Then it crashes down on you like “ithica”: Surging. Relentless. And always keeping up the pretence of the 'nice' vocoder. They are, and have always been Jekyll and Hyde. It has to be said there's a lot more finesse in the method now. A definite spit and polish is in evidence, but they still know how to mainline the restless energy and oblivion into your brain. My pleasures are simple.

“Boring Machines Disturb Sleep” resembles Sigur Ros's latest forays in their quest to find the radical and ethereal in soundtracking scratchy distorted footage of telegraph poles and children playing with dolls in the dirt. That's okay. But I can't understand the mumbling.

But for potential live blockbusters, “Ratts of the Capital” stands head and shoulders above. Starting out like another more elegant and older cousin of “ithica”, it ambles, it goes up a blissful notch, it stops for a imperceptible breather, then retains the blissful setting with glockenspiel pattering, before, WAIT FOR IT, the guitars are readied for a frenzied wanking assault and yes, it's unleashed, a mighty “My Father, My King”-like beefy, regal riff, likely to bring down buildings. Then of course, it fades away like a high you know you're already missing before it's even gone. “Golden Porsche” comes hot on its heels. Well, not exactly hot, more embers glowing in a wilting wind.

“I Know You Are But What Am I” has the whiff of the industrial crunch of Rock Action's “Sine Wave”, mixed with a winnowy piano motif, that quite frankly gets a bit grating after a while. This could be a new direction but in fact, they still stay away from dipping their toes in dance waters. The song stays in first gear, as if to say, 'look we can calm down and hold the same note for an age'. They did it better on old songs like “Helicon 2”.

“Stop Coming to My House” begins with a promise to re-tread the blissful parameters of “Helicon 1”, but continues like the distant echo of Kevin Shields's re-mix of “Fear Satan”, then - predictably but oh so beautifully - builds up to a swirling squall, that live, will no doubt engulf us and transport us heaven-wards. Then it just stops. I have to say Mogwai are shit at ending songs, never quite knowing what they started. But this time around it seems they trying their hardest to squeeze the epic into a pop song length. You ask yourself, why throw such potential to the wind? Or are you afraid of those pretentious cunt accusations? It leaves the listener a shade unsatisfied. Yet the moments that blow your mind coalesce and unify. They're all we need to remember, and will keep our engines running. That is the Mogwai way. And still, the song titles make me crack up more than ever. They have names nobody else is bolshy or funny enough to bless their tunes with.

Mogwai have an album in them, capable of delighting and shocking us, of smashing our craniums in and injecting heroin in our mushed-up brains, then chucking us in a filthy ditch, left to gaze in retarded wonder at the fireworks exploding in the brooding sky. An hour perhaps of the sort of crushing thunder and lightning show, that propels hearts to the stratosphere and pummels the body into submission. I want to be deafened and made to shiver with glee for an extended period. Their single songs - the noise epics- always stand out, so why not an album composed of just those? They dominate their other songs like The Colussus of Rhodes towering over a huddle of pygmy shrews. One day when their greatest hits album - The Greatest Fucking Record That Kicked Your Ass and Stroked Your Head Like A Puppy - is released, their full, concentrated genius will shine like a glittering beacon in the mists of the post-rock wastelands. More people will realise, more people will know Mogwai made songs that made instrumental music matter to a blessed generation hung up on lyrics that covered up a dearth of musical ingenuity, or saving that, searching imagination. Their word-less achievement and NME cover scaling is truly astonishing (there is nothing here that resembles “Take Me Somewhere Nice” in the slightest - perhaps Stuart finally believes actions rather than wistful words can do more damage than good). I am truly proud to be a fan.

Happy Songs is a great album, but not THE great Mogwai album. They learned their lesson from CODY, never to produce an album so bloated that it might eventually grind our patience to dust; at forty minutes it is the perfect length. The title is a joke, but it has a ring of truth about it. People will not buy this album for its sunny outlook, or because they have wells of limitless optimism, but many of these songs WILL make the buyer happy, for reasons I have tried (and possibly failed) to explain. We think of it as an endorphin maintenance job. And one day I know they will kick up the perfect hurricane, but for today this is good enough.

Reviewed by: Olav Bjortomt
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01
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