Mikal Cronin’s 2011 solo debut was full of noisy garage rock, a collection of scuzzy, lo-fi tunes that explored the iconography of ’60 psych. It’s a debut that never moved out of the shadow of its influences, any shade of Cronin’s songwriting ability drowned in layers of distortion and reverb. With MCII, Cronin sheds much of the fuzz for a more balanced and polished approach, resulting in one of the most consistent and rewarding albums of the year so far.
While Cronin certainly shares common traits (a penchant for guitar solos, nasal vocal delivery) with his longtime collaborator Ty Segall, MCII feels much more concise, more carefully crafted than any of Segall’s efforts. This is an album that boasts a bevy of hooks and exudes confidence across its succinct 37 minutes. Where Mikal Cronin felt like a nostalgic and often empty piece of crate-digging, MCII moves beyond its influences and carves out a unique set of genre meanings and interpretations. Perhaps most importantly, it’s refreshing to hear a rock album that sidesteps the cynicism of an act like Wavves while also avoiding the chest-thumping misogyny of a band like Fidlar. Instead, Cronin indulges in empathy and optimism, even in the face of harsh introspection.
On album opener “Weight,” Cronin laments the instability of life and art over a jangly piano and clean acoustic guitar: “I’ve been starting over for a long time/I’m not ready for another day,” he sings. But as a distorted guitar crashes into the chorus and Cronin shouts, “Sing for love,” a sense of life affirmation takes over. On “Am I Wrong?,” a driving piece of power pop anchored by parlor-house piano, he explores the fear of uncertainty before accepting unknown circumstances in one of the album’s simplest yet moving couplets: “Where we’re heading I don’t know/But I like you.” It would be misguided to mistake such nonchalance for a lack of care, or for a sense of devil-may-care rebellion. Cronin seems disinterested in the traditional garage-rock tropes of nihilism and skepticism, instead choosing to see the beauty and wisdom in unrequited love, social isolation, and artistic insecurity.
Sonically, Cronin often matches his hopeful lyricism with equally sunny arrangements. MCII isn’t so much psych-rock freakout as it is sunshine-pop bliss. “I’m Done Running from You” is a reverb-heavy ode to existential tranquility, whereas “Peace of Mind,” a pastoral folk ballad and one of the album’s most self-assured tunes, boasts an evocative falsetto chorus, where Cronin wails, “Can’t take this feeling from me” repeatedly, both an insecure plea for permanence and a statement of personal satisfaction. It’s that pervasive sense of satisfaction, of complete assurance, confidence, and balance that allows MCII to avoid the pitfalls of nostalgia and derivativeness. This is an album that exudes playfulness, treating genre as something that’s malleable and isn’t afraid to poke open wounds if it means creating a piece of art that connects emotionally.