Anyone familiar with the brief but punchy back catalogue of Meursault will know that they are fast becoming one of the most important bands in the vibrant Scottish Indie-folk scene, a collective of serious artists such as Frightened Rabbit and King Creosote who share both national and musical identities and who put a premium on piquant melodies and drawled turns of phrase. Meursault, with their first two albums, made a call for having one foot in and one foot out of this sound, creating records infused with the tradition, but that were coated in computerised mistiness, like an electronic watercolour. The balance, the flirtation, the one-nor otherness of Meursault has made them one of the most exciting bands of the last few years, one of those bands that gets under the skin.
Central to Meursault is the songwriting, musicianship and vocal talent of Neil Pennycook, theatrically somewhat of a Meursault himself, a perfectly respectable modern skinny-jeaned successor to the despondency of Camus, if not the grizzly unknowable-ness of his L’etranger. But if Camus’ most famous creation, from whom the band take their name, is damned by his lack of perceptiveness, then Pennycook’s most delicious songs see the narrator damned for exactly the opposite. His lyricism is the stuff of the most scarred of history’s balladeers. Pennycook the lyricist is cursed with overthinking, with analysing through loss, humiliation and rage; he is the eternal serpent eating its tail, the figure trapped in going over his mistakes, even when they are pock-marked with successes.
On the previous two albums of Meursault’s career there are moments of such shuddering tragic beauty that they drag you to a second listen in the same way that dreams take you back to the arms of lost loves, the ones who never let you go. The power of Pennycook’s artistry comes from the same place as the masters, such as Dylan and Leonard Cohen, who transcend the gap between lyric and melody by asserting that real pain comes from the loss of beauty, not the enforcement of cruelty. There are times when Pennycook’s vocal cracks at the perfect apex of a subtle chord progression and true poetry is reached, where the accumulative history of an image meets the unknowable baggage of a twist in a note and an indefinable moment of terrible beauty is struck within the listener. That is how good Pennycook can be.
If there is a criticism of Something for the Weakened, their third album, then it is that it is more of the same, only slightly less so. Moving away from the electronic undertow of their first two records, Pissing on Bonfires/Kissing with Tongues and All Creatures Will Make Merry, the band seem to have regressed to something a little warmer, something closer to the sound of the recent Burns Unit record. There was previously a battle between several elements of the Meursault sound: between the sweet energy, the darkness of the emotions, the fireside eclecticism of the collective feel (an element accentuated by the live experience of Meursault), and the rough cold blank-eyed stare of the electronic beats, gurgles and scratches. On Something for the Weakened a part of that is missing and it is impossible to not feel the album suffers for it. The songwriting also seems to do a better job of suggesting beauty, loss and tragedy than it does in actually presenting it.
That is not to say this is not a valuable record. ‘Lament for a Teenage Millionaire’ and ‘Dearly Distracted’ are good songs, even if they feel mainstream compared to great compositions such as ‘The Furnace’ or ‘Crank Resolutions’ from previous albums.
Perhaps Something for the Weakened is a respite record for Pennycook as he absorbs the slowly unifying sound of the Scottish folk scene. This type of irresistible assimilative transmogrification can sometimes happen and it has been happening in Scotland for some time, but it is worth noting that whereas Meursault seem to have lost a little of what made them great with this new record, they have not become KT Tunstall. It feels as if there has been a conscious decision to play mutedly with ideas, not to overthrow the creative energies they have. And whereas on the first two albums there are moments when certain creative decisions can be questioned, it is surely always better to go too far than sit in your rocking chair and wonder what might have been.