Camera Obscura‘s career was once bound inextricably with that of fellow Scots Belle and Sebastian. It’s easy to see why: like Stuart Murdoch’s troupe, Camera Obscura’s artwork is populated by fresh-faced, preppy types, they possess the same vaguely-bookish demeanour and they used to receive regular and vociferous support from Murdoch himself.
But by the time of 2006’s excellent Let’s Get Out Of This Country, Camera Obscura’s closest musical brethren were the Swedish act The Concretes. The two acts shared a producer (Jari Haapalainen) and a similarly irresistible sound: Spectorish drums, sweeping strings and female singers whose voices sound like Nico after a few singing lessons.
Sonically speaking, My Maudlin Career (again produced by Haapalainen) isn’t a massive departure from its predecessor. The album begins with French Navy, a pop song just as irresistible as LGOOTC’s opener, Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken. It’s a big, lovable whirlwind of excitable strings, an ecstatic chorus and one of 2009’s most happy-making lyrics thus far: “You with your dietary restrictions / Said you loved me with a lot of conviction”.
But the ebullience of French Navy doesn’t prove to be representative of the album as a whole. This is a sad record, and not in the sweetly melancholic, happy-to-be-unhappy manner you might expect. My Maudlin Career refuses to dress its dolour in cutesy sentiments: many of its lyrics express the writer’s misery quite bluntly. “How many times have you told me you want to die? / How many times will I let you get away with murder?” sings Traceyanne Campbell on Away With Murder, while songs such as James and the title track are similarly haunted by romantic betrayal: “You broke me, I thought I knew you well”; “In your eyes there’s a sadness / Enough to kill the both of us…They make me want to give up on love”.
Every track here has something going for it in musical terms: Swans is blessed with a chiming guitar hook; the title track features a stately, ice-pick piano figure worthy of ABBA, while Careless Love is perhaps their most soulful moment to date.
If this album has a problem, it’s a lack of variety. After French Navy, it settles into a slow-to-mid-tempo groove. The album’s closing third is clogged up with a succession of ballads; this, coupled with the generally bleak lyrics, means that the listener may well have lost the will to live before the brass-enhanced closer Honey In The Sun belatedly perks up proceedings. My Maudlin Career is crying out for the equivalent of If Looks Could Kill off Let’s Get Out Of This Country: something to heave the album out of its sulk and propel it to its climax.
Ultimately My Maudlin Career proves a little too successful in its evocation of sadness. It’s the musical equivalent of the death of Bambi’s mother: exquisitely rendered, but, once experienced for the first time, you need to steel yourself for subsequent visits.