Across his remarkably consistent discography, Mikal Cronin has explored the darkest depths of heartbreak, paranoia, and insecurity in a way that removes any distance between himself and the listener. And musically, Cronin has always aimed straight for the senses, as if the quickest route to our ears, minds and hearts can also be the most affecting. There’s little innovation here when it comes to form or song structure. Instead, these songs focus around expression and music’s ability to stir these tiny neurones in our heads in the most primal and natural way there is.
Cronin has never shied away from the histrionic or the emotional. And the songs on ‘MCIII’ are still the same open, honest confessions of his hopes and fears, but there is an added sentimentality here. The production value is turned up; there’s full string and brass sections. And even if Cronin’s fragile vocal is still saying the same things, ‘MCIII’ feels like the closest we’ve ever got to the man behind the name. This is even reflected in the cover art, too: ‘MCII’ had an image of a non-descript landscape through a thick sepia filter. Now though there is a full headshot, front and centre, as if to bring the focus firmly on himself.
When explaining the added sonic grandiosity to ‘MCIII’, Cronin has said that it was a conscious effort to make this album sound bigger and more ambitious from the earliest stages of songwriting. And it’s true, even if there is a lot going on here, none of it ever sounds decadent or unnecessary. You can hear Cronin the arranger as well as the songwriter throughout the record. The violin that twists and leaps around the dense layers of guitars and drums on the excellent ‘Turn Around’, as he laments a relationship lost amongst the noise and technology of modern life, helps balances it. Take it away and the song’s vulnerable core might stay hidden. Similarly, the cello that hums beneath ‘I’ve Been Loved’ almost plays like a counterpoint to his vocal, attempting to respond to his cries of heartbreak.
This is a sprawling album in terms of emotions and heart, too. Cronin’s approach to confessional songwriting has always been scattered, moving between painful moments of introspection and self-doubt, to confident statements of intent with complete abandon. Just look at the song titles: the positive, assured ‘Turn Around’, ‘vi) Ready’ and ‘Say’, the vulnerable ‘i) Alone’ and ‘Feel Like’, to the more reflective, insular ‘I’ve Been Loved’ and ‘Made My Mind Up’. If these were chapter titles from a teenager’s diary you’d have to question their stability. This is never clearer than on the stirring, memorable ‘i) Alone’, which opens with a full string section, brass and the powerful chords of a grand piano. It would feel wildly out of place in less capable hands. After a minute or so though, the dull thud of his acoustic guitar creeps slowly into focus, until we’re left with Cronin whispering ‘I’m not alone / In these walls / And I can’t sleep’. It’s a strange transition, moving from this huge, grandiose gesture of orchestras and concert halls to this very private reflection about the demons that can invade your mind when you are emptying it for sleep. The same thing happens on ‘v) Different’, where Cronin’s softly talks about a ‘different kind of lonesome’ between the soft, warm drone of cellos, violins and even some horns for good measure.
Like its predecessors, MCIII relies on its familiarity. These songs aren't designed to challenge or experiment, rather than exist purely for that emotional connection. For those moments where a couplet can stir a memory or a chorus can inspire belief. It revels in its immediacy, and with indie music moving further towards the conceptual and becoming increasingly self-conscious, this feels like a rare, but welcome moment of indulgence. MCIII is a great record because it gives us a scattered, messy, but uncompromisingly honest portrait of Cronin himself. Nothing is overthought, nothing is too considered - because ultimately, beneath all the production value and instrumental flourishes - this is still just some dude with a guitar singing about the way he feels.