On their past three albums, Camera Obscura could be called a lot of things, but “happy,” “chipper,” and “sunny” weren’t any of them. Musically they might sound upbeat, but the Glasgow band is pre-eminently concerned with love lost, disappointment and opportunities for love being missed, and about always being prepared for a broken heart. The group’s sublime fourth album, My Maudlin Career, is their darkest. All the songs here are about their usual topics, but musically, the band members are treading water in a kind of sadness they’ve only touched in spurts on past efforts.
My Maudlin Career opens with the unimpeachable “French Navy,” a song that should quickly replace “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken” as the band’s showstopper. “French Navy” effortlessly captures the wistfulness of ‘60s girl groups in a way that most projects set up solely to do so (like the Pipettes) miss almost every time. The song is still a downer: Lead singer Tracyanne Campbell sings about wanting to control the love she with a French naval officer she met in a library, but tragically being unable to hold on to it, but it’s delivered in an upbeat package that sounds lifted from Phil Spector in 1963. “The Sweetest Thing,” the album’s second best song, lifts a vocal harmony from the Beach Boys and tacks on swaying guitars and xylophones. Campbell is even more heartbroken here than earlier, as she sings about going on a date to “fall out of love” with a former boyfriend who treated her bad.
After “The Sweetest Thing,” the album slows down considerably. Slow, somber ballads about liars (“You Told a Lie”), one that equates the breaking of a relationship to murder (“Away with Murder”), one about a lover that reminds Campbell of James Dean (the simmering and evocative “James”), and one that finds Campbell asking an old lover if they miss her after she left them (“Other Towns and Cities”).
It’s not all gloom and doom on the rest of My Maudlin Career: The title track is more upbeat in its effervescence, and bouncy closer “Honey in the Sun” finds Campbell vowing to protect her feelings in the future over a robust horn section. But My Maudlin Career is more down and somber than past Camera Obscura records, which further fills out the band’s claim that Leonard Cohen is a huge influence.
Due to Stuart Murdoch helping them out on their debut, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, it was all too easy to just lump Camera Obscura in with Belle & Sebastian, presenting them as the other side to Belle’s chamber-pop coin. But over the course of one great LP (2004’s Underachievers Please Try Harder ), one pretty great one (2006’s Let’s Get Out of This Country ), and now My Maudlin Career, Camera Obscura have arrived at a sound centered on Campbell’s self-reflective loneliness and their lifting of all the best of ‘60s music — a sound they own by themselves.