If you're looking for a record that will make you feel proud to be a part of the human family and that will affirm our species' place in the great circle of life on this planet, The Courage of Others is not for you. At the risk of reading too much into frontman Tim Smith's metaphorically dense lyrics, the new Midlake album seems to be a damning indictment of the arrogance of people, we who would place ourselves so far above all the other creatures of the earth.
That's how Paul Alexander sees it, too. “It's kind of a sad place that we're finding ourselves in,” says Midlake's bassist, reached at home in Denton, Texas. “I wouldn't say it's a fatalistic view, or so pessimistic, but I think there's a sentiment [in Smith's lyrics] that there's very little that we can do about what the world does to us, and to remember that we're just human beings on a planet that's much bigger than us, in a cosmos that's much bigger than us.”
It's a bitter pill made easier to swallow thanks to the lush beauty of its trappings, with the layered jangle of acoustic and electric guitars sweetened by liberal doses of Smith's melodic flute playing and his striking vocal harmonizing with multi-instrumentalist Eric Pulido. Alexander says that while much of the album's material was written under the influence of English folk revivalists such as Fairport Convention and Pentangle, Midlake's sonic touchstone remains the '70s soft rock that so heavily informed its 2006 breakthrough, The Trials of Van Occupanther. That disc, the group's second full-length, earned its share of comparisons to Fleetwood Mac, America, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Not surprisingly, Alexander isn't impressed with the ear-fatiguing sound of modern rock production, whose dynamic range seems to be governed by the idea that everything should be louder than everything else.
“If you listen to recordings of classical music and symphonies, you're always having to turn up and down the volume, because the quiets are so quiet and the louds are so loud, and it's sort of really extreme,” he says. “That sort of music and those sorts of recordings really demand you to pay attention to the music or you're going to miss a lot. I don't know if that's a good or bad thing, but it's just something I've noticed. And I guess we do that; you know, we want it to be quiet when it's supposed to be quiet.”
All the better to hear Smith's dire musings on the sorry state of our species. Not that Alexander knows exactly what all of those musings are about, nor does he care to ask. “As for myself, I kind of like to let my imagination sort of discover its own meaning for the lyrics, like the listener would,” the bassist explains. “It keeps it kind of fresh for me. I don't want to know too much about what he's thinking sometimes.”
Midlake plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Monday (March 8).