Mogwai: Happy Songs for Happy People (Matador)

can’t live in the gray area between jagged post-rock and succinct indie pop forever.

Since 1997’s Mogwai Young Team, Scotland’s Mogwai has brought wave after wave of post-rock crunch to the forefront of underground music and at times has popped its collective head up from the depths to flirt with mainstream trends (see the band’s last full-length, Rock Action). The genre of post-rock has tried desperately to reinvent itself over the past few years, most markedly in the hands of Chicago jazz-rock purveyors Tortoise and Iceland’s ethereal Sigur Rós. It seems as though those bands have tired of the genre’s formula of “no formula,” and who can blame them? As history has demonstrated, in less than two years, we’ll be hearing Slint’s “Nosferatu Man” on Mitsubishi commercials. But Mogwai isn’t worried about that, and they’ve never been interested in reinventing the car commercial. On their latest release, the superbly titled Happy Songs for Happy People, they do, to a point, as they have done on their past efforts, create excruciatingly melodic rock music boasting a sheet metal frame.

This adherence to form is simultaneously the saving grace of the band and the force that keeps it from achieving greatness. But there are slight, yet notable, changes on Happy Songs, and frankly, it’s about time. Happy Songs is the band at its most distilled. The tracks are laconic when compared to those of their debut, but they are by no means minute in scope. They still carry broad strokes of power chord, boxy piano intros, and a precise amount of distortion on all instruments, including voice. But I wonder if the same effect can be reached in four and a half minutes rather than eight. Fulfilling a song’s climax, especially when the song is structured around the rise to that tumultuous epiphany, is a delicate operation. Four and a half minutes may not be enough. If the one-track, 20-minute My Father My King EP taught us anything, it’s that Mogwai’s music takes time to bloom. What’s more, Mogwai is fleshing out the band’s “sound,” adding more and more strings to their compositions, which softens them considerably, consequently stripping them of that hint of fury evident in the band’s first two albums. And the meaty synthesizer that begins “Moses? I Amn’t” sounds as though it were copped from fellow countrymen (and sometime label mates) Boards of Canada. As prolific as the Boards are, furious they amn’t.

This isn’t to say that the best moments on Happy Songs are the least focused—quite the opposite. The static percussion on “I Know You Are but What Am I?” and the gentle feedback and gentler vocals on “Boring Machines Disturbs Sleep” slide easily, yet efficiently, into the listener’s ears. In fact, the whole album is very pleasant, but not exciting or moving in the same way Young Team was. Still, it is a step toward something; it just isn’t sure where it’s going yet. Is this the sound of an older, wiser Mogwai? Are the noisy meanderings of “King Herod” and “Christmas Steps” gone forever, only to be replaced by a poppier, more user-friendly post-rock? These are questions Mogwai must answer definitively on their next album, because they can’t live in the gray area between jagged post-rock and succinct indie pop forever.

Happy Songs for Happy People, enjoyable as it is, sounds like a compromise, and if Mogwai could fulfill some of their potential, post-rock may not be destined to soundtrack auto ads just yet.

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