Review by Tim Sendra
If Camera Obscura's jump from Merge (and Elefant) to 4AD had you worried, or if you had a nagging suspicion that the switch was some kind of cynical career move and that they might change from being a small band with a knack for creating small moments of transcendent beauty and emotion to bland major-label-styled product (not that 4AD is any more "major label" than Merge in 2009, but they do seem more like big business somehow), well, you can relax now. The only thing that's changed is that the band appears to have hired fancier stylists for their photo shoots. My Maudlin Career is almost an exact copy of their previous album Let's Get Out of This Country from Jari Haapalainen's echo-ey, layered production to the mix of ballads and uptempo songs to the preponderance of strings and the unflinchingly honest lyrics. And of course, Tracyanne Campbell's beguiling vocals and the band's — now down to a five-piece with the departure of trumpeter Nigel Baillie — note-perfect performances. Both albums lead off with their hookiest song (in this case the extremely lovely "French Navy"), have moments of Motown-fueled joy ("Honey in the Sun") and quiet country rock ("Forest and Sands"), and excel at dramatic girl group-influenced ballads (the title track, "The Sweetest Thing"). Like the last album, too, Campbell's words are sad to the point of gloomy. This time out, though, she cranks the sadness to 11 as the record unfolds like a travelogue of sadness and disappointment, stopping for frozen rivers in Toronto, "half full moons in Mexico," kisses in Spain, California redwoods, and bus trips from Cleveland to Chicago as her relationship unravels. That Campbell had her heart broken is plain, and she isn't shy about giving out details and delving deep into the dark corners of her misery. It's quite brave and she makes it work by pairing the despair of the verses with easy-to-sing-along-with choruses. Also by writing lovely melodies that band and producer fully flesh out with a light and steady hand. Too many confessional writers seem to forget these vital elements, but she stays on top of it almost without fail. In fact, the only song that on the album that falls a little flat fails in that very regard; "Other Towns & Cities" is a meandering ballad that has unusual rhymes and vocal lines, but not much else going on musically. Still, one not amazing song doesn't make the album any less of a musical success or a less powerful emotional experience, because it truly is both. And if My Maudlin Career falls a tiny bit short of Let's Get Out of This Country, and it does, it's only because that album was so wonderful. Really, the group could go on remaking it for years to negligible complaints from their fans and very few diminishing returns.
Pitchfork Review :
On the title track of Camera Obscura's fourth album, My Maudlin Career, Tracyanne Campbell sings, "This maudlin career has come to an end/ I don't want to be sad again." As usual, she's being sincerely ironic. Camera Obscura fans will be pleased to know that she's still turning out maudlin torch songs with apparent ease. It is a record of the most immoderate sentiment: Thirty seconds in, on "French Navy", you've already got a dusty library, a French sailor, and the moon on the silvery lake. By the second track, "The Sweetest Thing", Campbell's ready to trade her mother for a compliment from a certain someone. She might not want to be sad again, but judging from the kind of tangled romantic assignations she confesses to here? Album number five already lurks in the inevitable fallout.
The sonic similarities and early connections between Camera Obscura and fellow Glaswegians Belle and Sebastian have already been flogged to death; what's less often mentioned is that they're also growing up parallel. Both began as lo-fi indie-pop bands with heads full of classic pop radio. Over time, both shifted their emphasis toward crafting classic-sounding songs in various Western pop idioms while retaining traces of their button-badge origins. More timid incarnations of Camera Obscura dissolved their genre exercises into a sort of equalizing cuddliness; on My Maudlin Career, the band's confidence draws them into sharper relief. You'll hear traces of 1950s beach music on "The Sweetest Thing", country on "Forest and Sands", and bubbly orch-pop all over the place. The album feels as if it could have been released any time in the last 50-odd years, but the inspired arrangements-- and, of course, Campbell's indelible voice-- make it sound fresh, too.
"Refinement" is the watchword on My Maudlin Career, and there are two particular developments of note. One is the string arrangements, which are kinda out of control. They buffet the verses relentlessly, taking over entirely whenever the jubilation reaches such a feverish pitch that words can no longer express it-- check out the deliriously up-swirling end of "Careless Love". It's as if George Gershwin stormed the studio. A weaker band might have floundered under the weight, which brings us to the second notable development: Campbell's singing retains its vulnerable-but-tough naiveté, but it sounds more assertive and agile, with increased swing and soul, than ever before. There are still melodies of heart-wrenching simplicity that stick in your head to an almost irritating degree (beware of the dangerously catchy "James"), balanced by songs with longer, more complex and limber melodic phrases. It's a singing style one wants to call "mature."
And maturity is a central concept to Camera Obscura-- Campbell's found it in her singing, but in her lyrics, the search continues. The asymmetries in her personality give her songs their distinct character. She still has that bitingly sarcastic, even cynical side, which lends a flinty edge to the sentimentality. Even in an adoring ode to a sailor boyfriend, she takes a moment to derisively mention his "dietary restrictions." And on the rollicking "Swans", you can practically hear her rolling her eyes when she sings, "So you want to be a writer? Fantastic idea!" Sarcasm seems to be a defense mechanism for Campbell, one that's necessary because of two very pronounced and conflicting personality traits. On one hand, she's a hopeless romantic. On the other, she's very cautious, and somewhat pessimistic. These contrary impulses create the tragically beautiful situations in her songs.
The fear of getting lost crops up frequently-- at least twice on this album. So does the fear of public opinion, which rears its head on "French Navy": "I'll be criticized for lending out my eye/ I was criticized for letting you break my heart." Campbell is striving for equilibrium in adult relationships but keeps falling back into teenage predicaments. Her meditations on maturity, responsibility, and healthy love give the record its darker, more serious overtones. On "Away with Murder", over sullen minor-key organs, she contemplates the point where support shades into enabling: "How many times have you told me you want to die?" The question of what we owe the people we love, and what we can reasonably expect from them in return, is the backdrop for all the romance and depression. People are always showing up at Campbell's door when she doesn't want them to, or not showing up when she does. Being beholden in this way seems to frustrate and attract her in equal measure. Luckily for us, until this schism is resolved, her maudlin career should continue to play out apace.
— Brian Howe, April 21, 2009