Contrary to most Mogwai fans, who fall all over themselves at the mere mention of Young Team or My Father My King, my favorite Mogwai album has always been Rock Action. More for personal reasons than critical ones, I suppose, as that album was basically my companion through a rather tough time in my life. A friend once remarked, somewhat cheekily, that it was amazing I hadn’t committed suicide to songs like “Take Me Somewhere Nice” or “Dial: Revenge.” But something in those songs helped and healed me, be it Gruff Rhys’ Welsh lyrics or the sweeping, gorgeous arrangements that Mogwai had grown increasingly fond of.
So Rock Action holds a special place in my collection, one of those places you don’t want other albums to approach. I want albums like Rock Action to remain unique, special, timeless even, lest their impact be somehow diluted. So imagine my dismay when I started listening to Happy Songs for Happy People and found that it was disconcertingly close to Rock Action in sound and style. Sure, that’s always a bad thing from a critical perspective, especially considering how fond Mogwai’s been of reinventing themselves with each album, but from a personal view, it seemed especially alarming.
But the more I listened to Happy Songs for Happy People, the more I found myself being won over (and realizing how melodramatic I’d been). Gorgeous music is gorgeous music, and Happy Songs for Happy People is undoubtedly full of it. It doesn’t reach the same orchestral and emotional heights as Rock Action — I suspect this is due to Dave Fridmann’s absence behind the boards. However, it’s clear Mogwai is incredibly comfortable with their sound, and if they don’t feel the need to set new boundaries, then they’re certainly happy with exploring the area within the current ones.
Besides displaying the band’s love for interesting titles, tracks like “Hunted by a Freak” (be sure to check out the bizarre video involving cartoon animals falling to their demise), “Kids Will Be Skeletons,” and “Boring Machines Disturbs Sleeps” come closest to Rock Action in scope and feel. All 3 are slow, elegant pieces of billowing guitars, cathedral organs, soaring strings, and Stuart Braithwaite’s tired, sometimes-vocoderized vocals. While they don’t really offer anything new to the Mogwai canon, they don’t try to but instead, concern themselves with just being beautiful and stirring.
However, there are moments when Mogwai has become a bit too comfortable with their sound. Those yearning for a good ol’ fashioned sonic beatdown akin to “Summer” or “Christmas Steps” will start getting excited once “Killing All the Flies” starts up with its chiming guitars, throbbing bassline, and watery vocoder. You can just tell by the song’s pacing that it’ll go ballistic, and it certainly does… for all of 30 seconds. The song feels half-completed, lazy even, like the band just tossed it off after returning from the pub late one evening.
“Ratts of the Capital,” on the other hand, does deliver a fair dose of shock and awe, but its familiarity blunts some of the impact. Mogwai know their craft, and know it very well, such that the song’s evolution seems rather obvious. You know exactly how it’s going to turn out. Even the song’s metal breakdown (à la My Father, My King), while still cool to hear, has some of its impact lessened because you know it’s coming.
It’s really on the last two tracks that Mogwai shows some continued development in their sound, and they feel far more compelling to me than the album’s louder parts. “I Know You Are But What Am I?” finds the band laying a solemn, slightly discordant piano melody over fluttering tones and a stuttering, gasping beat. The piano notes and tones occasionally dovetail, and when they do, the song briefly strikes an emotional chord unlike anything else on the album.
“Stop Coming to My House” might just be the album’s most striking track; the climax is certainly its most affecting outburst. Beginning with digital bleeps and tones and Sigur Rós-like guitar squalls, the song collides with itself in a chill-inducing trainwreck of strangled beats, buzzsaw guitars, pounded pianos, strings, and other assorted forms of sonic detritus. As the sounds grind away at each other, they eventually disintegrate, merging into a shimmering wall of sound that is the band’s closest link to My Bloody Valentine since Kevin Shields’ remix of “Kicking a Dead Pig.”
The more I’ve listened to Happy Songs for Happy People, the more I realize just how silly my concerns had been. Rock Action will always be Rock Action. Chances are I’ll always get that funny, fluttering feeling when Rhys’ otherworldly voice comes in on “Dial: Revenge,” or when the church organs explode on “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong.” However, had I continued with my rather silly way of thinking, the beauty and splendor that largely characterizes Happy Songs for Happy People would have always remained in Rock Action’s shadow.
Happy Songs for Happy People doesn’t add anything terribly new to Mogwai’s palette (with the possible exception of those last two tracks), but taken on its own merits, Mogwai proves they’re still very capable of taking familiar sounds and crafting beautiful, compelling music with them.