It has been rumored that Colin MacIntyre, the sole braintrust of Mull Historical Society, is so prolific that he has a stockpile of hundreds of songs in his home studio on the small island of Mull just off the west coast of Scotland. For some, such an embarrassment of riches might raise problems in choosing which songs to put on an album, but on Mull Historical Society’s debut, Loss, MacIntyre chose well.
“If this is my public I’m ready for you,” he declares, sizing up his audience on the opening “Public Service Announcer.” MacIntyre must like what he sees because what follows is ferociously cheeky pop. From the whirling “Watching Xanadu,” which summons Brian Wilson if he spent time in the misty Scottish rain, to the rushing “This Is Not Who We Were,” which contains all the hooks in four minutes that Oasis lost four albums ago, Loss is a quirky but surprisingly grounded debut, with a rushing urgency and the kind of sarcasm and wit destined to make many look to MacIntyre a spokesman for the cynical. In spite of the brisk choruses, there are, instances of soulful and genuine sadness. “Barcode Bypass,” which ends with a nod to Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels,” is a moving tale of a shopkeeper who can’t take the stress of competing with a big business supermarket; “Only I” confronts the death of MacIntyre’s father, a political and industrial correspondent for the BBC.
The Mull native spent his early years watching his uncles’ cover band pound through the classics; it’s not surprising that Loss contains trace elements of Brian Wilson and Bowie, but also summons to mind more recent acts like XTC (“Animal Cannabus”) and David Gray (“Barcode Bypass”). But for all his influences, MacIntyre is a wiz unto himself—”Instead” comes replete with a boy’s choir soporifically intoning “Maybe I wasn’t meant to be.”
Although the album has its share of supporting players, MHS is a one-man show. Loss is a rich debut with the energy, spirit and gleeful flair for glorious pop that puts it alongside debuts by the Housemartins and the Trashcan Sinatras. MacIntyre sounds like someone who can write a great song whenever he wants. Whether it’s the doleful “Strangeways Inside” or the thoughtful wobble of the closer “Paper Houses,” Loss is a majestic first effort.
Us may not have the same pop immediacy, but it demonstrates MacIntyre’s range. The hypnotic orchestral opener “The Final Arrears” — in spite of its infectious bass and rolling drums — has a meditative quality. “Asylum” is a gorgeous and soulful ballad which finds its narrator in between madness and sanity, heartbreakingly begging “…please sit on the sunny side of me.” “Live Like the Automatics” is a pop gem, and “Don’t Take Your Love Away From Me” is a simple and tender love song. “Minister for Genetics & Insurance M.P.” is a tale of a depressed Member of Parliament, and “The Supermarket Strikes Back” is a sublime sequel to “Barcode Bypass” which follows the conscience of the malevolent supermarket owner who put the first song’s shopkeeper out to pasture. When he confesses, “I no longer feel alive,” it’s a crushing sentiment that seems to indicate that he got what he wanted and now he doesn’t want it anymore. In this deft and catchy tune, MacIntyre plays it smart—he could bury the worker in utter bombast, but chooses instead to convey the situation subtly, elegantly singing of the realities of what we do.
While Loss benefited from economy, Us is a tad overwrought. “Am I Wrong” is unfocused; and though the message of “5 More Minutes” is romantic, he can do much better. Still, Us is a terrific record. MacIntyre doesn’t take the easy way out; instead of shooting for immediacy he takes his hands off the wheel a bit and lets the songs veer where they need to. If it’s not always successful, it’s never dull. McIntyre’s songs are so good, even his weaker moments ultimately work. Possessing an bottomless bag of hooks and an endless supply of songs, his vaults are destined to one of the most sought after safes around.