Mikal Cronin’s sophomore solo album, MCII, taught us that the longhaired multi-instrumentalist best known for his scuzzy musical exploits alongside garage rock cohort Ty Segall cleans up nicely. Even though the sandy, Beach Boys-reminiscent arrangements and harmonies of debut opener “Is It Alright” hinted at a pop side lurking beneath the waves of fuzz, nobody could have expected Cronin to burst forth so confidently on MCII with a collection of unapologetically clean-running power pop. More importantly, though, he crafted an album that any fellow twentysomething could relate to. “I want a minute, but my time is running low,” he sings on “Shout It Out”, a reasonable but ungrantable request for a timeout to work on relationships, figure himself out, and contemplate the future before it kicks in the door. It’s a record about the anxiety of establishing footing on a treadmill-like terrain, one that constantly requires you to take a step forward, ready or not. On MCIII, Cronin continues to grapple with the constraints and pressures that time places on us while expanding his sound and even wading into concept album territory.
MCII’s closing song, “Piano Mantra”, ended on a hopeful note: “Now overdrawn, I’m coming back home … The open arms are giving me hope.” Two years later on MCIII, time still feels more like an adversary than an ally, but Cronin seems determined to be more present than paralyzed in the moment. On opener “Turn Around”, we find him “still young/ Still finding space that we can call our own” amid the confused blur of passing days. But Cronin is beginning to understand what it might mean to live with, rather than at odds with, life’s ephemeral realities: “If this is just a moment in a flow/ Be here with me until that moment goes.” Similarly, on glowing lead single “Made My Mind Up”, the lines “I’m finding my place in the moment … It’s overwhelming, but this could be okay” bookend his final verse. Life hasn’t simplified between records, but we can perhaps take solace in the fact that Cronin seems slightly better equipped to cope with that final, heady rush (or gasp) of youth.
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Part of what set MCII apart from its contemporaries is Cronin’s knack for implementing instruments that you won’t find in most garages. On MCIII, he again plays the bulk of the standard instruments found on the album, but the most unique touches from the music school grad are the string and horn arrangements executed by his fellow musicians. The horns on “Say”, instead of serving as accents, act as both launchpad and the final tire rupturing during the song’s blowout finale. On “I’ve Been Loved”, the spare strings feel like Cronin’s lone companion as he’s “locked inside [his] mind.” Strings also transform “Feel Like”, the album’s best track, from a straightforward rocker into a desperate release. They raise the emotional stakes during the song’s final ascent alongside lines like, “The weight inside my chest is thicker than my skin … The pressure’s building up,” and make tangible the disconnection Cronin expresses when singing, “I feel like I’m flying from myself again.” Rarely do these touches feel forced, nor do they feel like mere flourishes. Not being tied to any one instrument allows Cronin the freedom to shift the focus to whatever best serves his songs.
Cronin admits to having previously tinkered with the notion of recording a concept album. The last six songs of MCIII, an autobiographical return to a significant period as he entered his 20s, act as that toe dip. His writing has always been personal, though, and these songs can be combed for insights into Cronin’s formative years, or listeners can simply absorb the emotional outpouring and not feel cheated in the slightest. Autobiographical or not, the isolation, tumult, and resignation of “Alone” are palpable in its shift from hushed contemplation to garage band-meets-orchestra denouement. And who can’t squeeze their toes into the kicks of someone crying out “God, I need some control” (“Control”) or “I’m not ready for December/ I’m not up for looking through that window” (“Ready”), even if we’re not quite sure what happened to Cronin that month a decade ago? Though Cronin’s storytelling chops may still be inchoate, his skill as a songwriter allows the listener the option of feeling for him, with him, or both.
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Apart from a couple of sluggish moments found on the record’s B-side, the real knock against MCIII, unfair though it may be, is that it comes on the heels of MCII, an all but flawless album that perfectly captured the anxiety of being a present-day twentysomething. It’s a bar Cronin will always be measured against; but even if MCIII falls shy of its lofty predecessor, this record marks his most ambitious outing to date and makes it impossible not to already start anticipating MCIV.
Essential Tracks: “Feel Like”, “Alone”, and “I’ve Been Loved”