Keeping abreast of the release schedules of Californian garage rock musicians can be a full-time hobby. A scene spearheaded by Ty Segall, John Dwyer and Tim Presley, each year brings about any number of studio projects, new collaborations, world tours, side projects and one-off releases. Mikal Cronin, another core member of the community, has by contrast been keeping a curiously low profile since the release of 2015’s MCIII.
It transpires that Cronin has been going through a period of relationship strife and writer’s block. He took a literal step that most are happy to leave at a metaphorical level – he decamped to a cabin in the woods for a sustained period of isolation in order to break the impasse and come up with a set of new material. Upon returning to Los Angeles, he entered a studio with Ty Segall’s Freedom Band – it isn’t a Cali garage rock LP without some measure of artist incest – and recorded this fourth solo album.
Where Cronin’s previous work, peaking with the addictive MCII in 2013, carved a niche by dealing in the most irresistible ear candy of sliding melodies and spiky guitar riffs, here we find Cronin in a markedly more mature, reflective and often restrained mode. This Cronin feels older; the giddy, laissez-faire writer of before has morphed into a wiser if a little wearier, figure. The impact of the four years is easy to detect.
Take ‘Feel It All’, which finds Cronin singing, “Is there something to be said/To fill the void with something ugly/You’re better off dead”. One can assume that the personal hardships that Cronin had to navigate during his period of self-quarantining included some significant lows. This expansion of the psychological capacity of his music lends it qualities that were previously absent, but the question must be asked, has something been lost in the trade-off?
Rarely does Cronin cut loose musically on Seeker. The track ‘I’ve Got Reason’ is perhaps one outlier; a muscular, chunky riff kicks down the door at the song’s outset, never repenting for the duration. The pent-up rasp returns to Cronin’s vocals and the free roam is again present in his guitar playing. The melody, which bears a passing resemblance to ‘Dear Prudence’ is memorable and as a listener, one derives a sense that the track was fuelled by a sense of progression out of his own emotional troughs, a self-re-affirmation that is reflected in the track’s title. Later on ‘Guardian Well’, which rolls in on a wave of Neil Young-style shrieking harmonica, the shackles have fully been thrown off as Cronin and band find the furthest-reaching Mojave horizons and endeavour to fill the space between here and there with a swathe of broad-focused American rock strut.
But too often that sense of abandon is missing. ‘Fire’ in some ways feels like the album’s core. “I had a friend who went to war/Got him home but he’s still bleeding,” Cronin sings. It becomes clear that the war in question is an emotional war with a partner that is no longer there. “I’m the fool who’s falling in love again,” Cronin continues, and the picture starts to focus yet more. The death and rebirth that have been set out earlier in the track are in this case relating to the desire to take the arduous leap of faith required to embark on a new relationship. There is a strangulation to Cronin’s vocal in the chorus that suggests that life has driven him back to the breaking point of wanting, or even needing, that closeness again. The tale is compellingly told but the track is otherwise unmemorable.
And this is the enduring issue with Seeker: whilst there is a clear evolution within Cronin as a writer, these tracks lack the fizz of the music that brought such interest to his name in the first place. ‘Sold’ and ‘On the Shelf’ similarly allow their message to take precedence over their composition, sacrificing Cronin’s great calling card – mastery of the pop form. Whether he has less interest in that now or puts less significance on it, the loss is felt. There are, though, signs here of real growth and with new strings to his bow, the best of Cronin’s career may still be yet to come.