Tracyanne Campbell has always had an exceptionally pretty voice, even when Camera Obscura’s early bookish narratives required her to play shy. Four albums and a decade later, the outsized expressions of romantic discontent on My Maudlin Career aren’t bashful at all. In fact, with the regularity that she seems to get torn apart in these songs, it might do her well to be a little more guarded with her affection. She’s swept off her feet by a sailor in the gorgeous 60s pop dream of lead single “French Navy,” but her love goes wrong again and again and again as the album unfolds. Her honey-kissed sighing is central to the mix. At times it can overshadow swooning compositions, immaculately produced with nary a tambourine hit or a strings swell out of place. Campbell’s singing and her mates’ accompaniment are so well put-together that it can be easy to let the music breeze past without really connecting to the longing it contains. To slightly misquote the title track, her pain is gigantic but it’s not as big as her reverb.
For those listening closely, like the Paul Simon-afflicted protagonist of “The Sweetest Thing,” the record could be a consuming soundtrack for a post-breakup sulk. The disappointment carries well across softly shifting styles, from that song’s preppy Beach Boys’ backing coos to the vaguely Nashville bop of “You Told a Lie.” With its distant rumbling drums and pitter-pat strumming, “James” is a perfect sonic approximation of staring sadly into a spring rainstorm from inside a picture window. The record is judicious with its lap steel, but Campbell herself is kind of a classic country and western heroine, with a sad soul and a big voice (which swaps out the Southern twang for a Scottish brogue).
The closing “Honey in the Sun” is easily My Maudlin Career’s warmest song, with summery horns that sound surprisingly optimistic. Its placement at the end of such a melancholy record mirrors the song’s individual theme: that the capacity to love can somehow survive pervasive emotional peril. “I wish my heart was cold, but it’s warmer than before,” Campbell admits. A heart that continues beating is one that can continue breaking it seems, which bodes well for a career that continues to chronicle such lovely despair.