By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"We didn't want to recreate that same album," Smith says. "We wanted to do something different."
He tried to find inspiration by searching the Internet for a deeper, broader pool of the same kinds of bands that inspired Van Occupanther, eventually discovering the likes of a spookier brand of British folk acts from the '70s, among them Fairport Convention and Sandy Denny (in early December, through his band's publicist, Smith released a 10-track playlist to share some of the songs that help inspired Courage). But even upon determining this slightly darker focus for the new record, Smith's progress stalled. It wasn't that he and the band weren't writing—they were. The group just wasn't pleased with the results.
"We couldn't write successfully for the first year," frontman Smith admits.
"In the Ground," the first song the band recorded in this space, would eventually make its way onto Courage as the album's closing number—but it's a vastly different song than originally intended. Midlake's first attempt, Smith now concedes, was just too grand in scope. How grand was it? In total, the song featured 82 tracks layered over each other—a number the band conceded as too large upon hearing their efforts meshed together.
"Tim had all these songs ready that we were all excited about recording," Pulido says. "We just got them wrong for a long time."
The band's perfectionist attitude can likely be traced back to its origins. Three of its five members—drummer McKenzie Smith, bassist Paul Alexander and guitarist Tim Smith (who went to school to study saxophone)—met as students in the University of North Texas' esteemed jazz program (guitarists Eric Pulido and Eric Nichelson joined the band later). That certainly explains the care with which the band prepared its compositions: On average, Pulido estimates, the band spent about a month on the writing, arranging and recording of each of the songs that eventually would scrape their way onto Courage.
A little excessive? Maybe.
"Nobody's harder on us than we are," Pulido says.
"Thinking the world was mine to lay hold on/I breathe in the promise of maiden and man/But each have their own illusions to hold onto."
—"Rulers, Ruling All Things"
To Midlake's credit, the completed album bears the fruits of the band's discriminating ears. The Courage of Others is quite impressive. It's a lush, dense and often grim record. And, as one would expect from a band this deliberate, each and every sonic adornment serves a purpose in telling the album's tales from a bleak, long-forgotten time capsule.
The Jethro Tull influence is obvious—almost every track on the album features the accompaniment of a flute. And, as advertised, it is a darker-sounding record. A bigger one, too, but in depth and in breadth, not in volume. If anything, The Courage of Others is a quieter record than The Trials of Van Occupanther. But, whereas that earlier release found the band reveling in a variety of paces, from the driving opening cut of "Roscoe" to the dance-folk sound of "Young Bride," this release never finds the band straying too far from its mid-tempo comfort zone.
It works, though, in context. The Courage of Others finds Midlake a band obsessed. In many ways, the album's tracks are all quite similar. Listening to it all the way through, the songs bleed into and blend with one another, it's nearly 42-minute run time sounding like one long diatribe filled with many parts—or maybe 11 slightly different attempts to capture a single, fleeting aesthetic. But multiple listens reveal the minor differences within each song. They each boast a subtle, unique quality. So do the lyrics.
Smith's aim here is apparent. Whether with "Acts of Man," the album's plodding opener, or "Fortune," with beautifully spare, Nick Drake-aping melody, or with "The Horn," by far the most driving track on the album, Smith's unflagging intent seems to be focused on capturing the tragic tie between Earth and man in an agricultural-driven world. Perhaps his tales of the havoc man wreaks on his land is an allegory of modern man's struggles with global warming—but, more than that, it appears a parable of the band's position in the music world. Each song seems to tell the tale of man coming to grips with his place in life, with the world around him and with his lack of control in regard to his fate.
When pressed for a common theme in the record's forbidding aesthetic, songwriter Smith simply shrugs.
"Maybe," he offers in response to the above assertion. "I really don't know."
He and the rest of the band acknowledge this much, though: It isn't re-inventing any wheels with its sound. None of the band members even flinch when it's implied that its catalog is nothing more than glorified mimicry.
"We're pretty clear about what we're going for," the drumming Smith says.
And once the listener too concedes this point, the brilliance of Courage is revealed. The aesthetic, although sufficiently softer than most of the chic fare in the indie music landscape, is a hypnotic, endlessly alluring one. Frontman Smith's tender and delicate vocals serve as the centerpiece for each of Courage's songs, and their somber tone elicits a palpable empathy. The Courage of Others is, without a doubt, a sad record.