Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

What can we reasonably demand from the bands we love? When is it fair to be disappointed in a once-favorite’s artistic choice? I tend to value consistency and refinement – I want a band to figure out what it does well and keep doing that, perhaps even doing it better. Some people prefer experimentation and stabs at growth. So you may think that Camera Obscura’s fourth album, My Maudlin Career, is no more than a holding pattern – that the band is merely treading water. I disagree. This is the sound of a band that prefers depth to width; they wisely have chosen to search for richer veins in the same mine they’ve been digging for years. Camera Obscura is not interested in branching out into dub-metal. Why would they when they can instead become among the best at orchestral indie-pop? The band released one more album after this, and then went mostly quiet after the death of pianist/vocalist Carey Lander in 2015.

What I Think of This Album

My Maudlin Career is an honorable follow-up to Let’s Get Out of This Country, almost matching that album’s quality. Tracyanne Campbell’s lyrics are equal parts weepy, funny, biting, self-deprecating, and devastating. This time, we get nuggets like “There are flowers in my house / I bought them myself”(“Swans”); “You, with your dietary restrictions / Said you loved me with a lot of conviction” (“French Navy”); “I would trade my mother to hear you sing” (“The Sweetest Thing”); and “Careless love and acting tough / Weren’t my style, I’ve had enough” (“Careless Love”).

The initial drum hits of opener “French Navy” come across like a statement of purpose, calling to mind similar introductory percussive exclamations on “Be My Baby” or “Like a Rolling Stone.” If “French Navy” is ultimately unable to conquer such deep seas, well, that’s okay – it’s still a fantastic slice of melodic pop. Campbell’s vocals, as usual, are beautiful and clear, cutting through the dense string arrangements by Björn Yttling (Peter, Bjorn, & John). “Careless Love,” for example, sounds like the Boston Pops, with a bewildering coda.

Most times, though, the production of Jari Haapalainen (the Concretes) is spot on. The burbling, buzzing, twinkling title track – with Campbell intoning “I don’t want to be sad again” – is mesmerizing. Brian Wilson is the lodestar for the sumptuous “The Sweetest Thing,” (featuring a drum track made for Hal Blaine). I defy you not to swoon to dreamy (though a tad repetitive) “You Told a Lie.” Campbell nails the questioning duality of “Away With Murder” (and her pronunciation of “murder” is a delight).

“Swans” is majestic construction – a palace made of sugar cubes. Meanwhile, the delicate “James” is a showcase for Campbell’s voice. “Forests & Sands” clip-clops along like a palomino across the prairie, while the bouncy, joyous “Honey In the Sun” is a Scottish blend of Motown and Stax, with bright brass and warm strings. “Other Towns & Cities” is a spare ballad that Campbell nonetheless approaches playfully with her phrasing.

Frances MacDonald of Teenage Fanclub makes another appearance in the liner notes.

The Best Thing About This Album

There are any number of contenders here, but I will select “My Maudlin Career.”

Release Date

April, 2009

The Cover Art

This watercolor makes me physically uncomfortable.

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