The third time is charmingly confounding for garage-rocking storyteller Mikal Cronin
“Every record I’ve made, there’s a point when I’m listening to the demos when I completely freak out and ask my friends, ‘Does this all make sense?’” So says Mikal Cronin, who’s now on his third solo collection, MCIII.
Cronin’s a pal of fellow Californian Ty Segall—he was on a European tour with the prolific rocker when he grew the beard that he sports on the cover of the new album, although he’s since shaved it off and cut off most of his hair. MCIII casts a wider net than either of his previous albums; while it still has plenty of the scruffy garage rock and blissful power pop that made 2013’s MCII such a gem, many of its songs weave in grand orchestral textures among the brash guitars, and the second half is a six-part set of tracks that form a connected narrative. Dare we call it a concept record?
“I like the idea of concept records and song arcs that have a bigger story,” says Cronin. “But at the same time, it seemed like the first instinct with a concept or story is to come up with something fictional or fantastical.” Rather than go the route of, oh, Pink Floyd’s The Wall or Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade and make up a story, Cronin turned to his own life, as he does in all his songs.
“Just the way my songwriting has been the last two records, I want to keep it personal and honest and write about my own experiences,” he says. “So, I went back to a part of my life about 10 years ago, which, in retrospect, turned out to be an important coming-of-age moment and influential in what I do now. It was a very difficult time to get through, and very confusing to me. But in retrospect, it set me down the path that I am still pursuing today. It’s like an autobiographical short story.”
The coming-of-age story arc that follows from “i) Alone” to “ii) Gold” to “iii) Control” to “iv) Ready” to “v) Different” to “vi) Circle” is there for the listener to decode. The music ranges widely—it’s kinda like listening to an ambitious and grand Guided By Voices album, with strings—and the songs certainly work separately. The revved-up, cacophonous “ii) Gold” was an advance single.
Cronin put his college music degree to work when he decided he wanted to write parts for strings and horns for this album. Although he had used an isolated violin or French horn on previous records, the broader orchestration is something new.
“It’s always been really interesting to me to add those elements to my music, and increasingly so,” he says. “The string arrangements and horns in there, I technically wouldn’t have been able to do years ago when I was doing the first records. It was a push and struggle for me to learn how to best write for those instruments. You kind of have to revamp everything else to fit around them.”
He wasn’t hearing lush, ’60s orch-pop or Beach Boys-style teenage symphonies. He still wanted the hard-rock guitars and garage-rock riffs, and he struggled to find the right ratios.
“I personally haven’t heard a lot of models of that, at least in the music I listen to,” he says. “Just finding that specific balance of what I wanted to do, kind of heavy guitar and bass with strings—I’m sure there is, but I was going kind of blind.”
Cronin plays most of the instruments himself on the record, but he wrote charts for the string and horn players. “They’re not the most intricate, crazy arrangements with those instruments,” he says. The orchestration bolsters the joyful hooks of “Made My Mind Up,” which Cronin likens to early Tom Petty; it thickens the feedback-laced finale of “Say”; a somber cello sweetens the acoustic ballad “I’ve Been Loved.” But it’s understandable that Cronin worried about it all hanging together.
“I find my musical taste mixes a lot,” he says. “I listen to a Cheap Trick record immediately followed by a Black Sabbath record, then, oh, Kate Bush. When I started making music under my own name, I had that initial need to figure out what direction I was going to approach it from. I played in tons of different kinds of bands: more straight garage, surfy punk, and punk, and weird proggy bands, and I wrote songs acoustically and wrote soundtracks and shit. I wanted to find a way to mix everything in a kind of congruent way. That’s always been important to me. I feel it’s getting more extreme on every record. The harder moments and the softer moments on this one are a lot farther apart than anything on my first record.”
Cronin needn’t worry about it all making sense, however. MCIII cuts a wide path, but it’s not schizophrenic. It’s a great listen, start to finish.
“For better or for worse, I want to throw everything into a blender,” he says. “I have to remember that it all holds together just because it’s my experience and me writing it.”