One thing people must understand is that while these guys are a Scottish good time gal soundtrack for football (meaning soccer) games playing in the background while everyone gets knackered (meaning drunk) and a wee (meaning small) bit sad (meaning sadness), in America they’re the soundtrack to a prom night afterparty that never, ever ends. Prom night is very important to people, even people who hated the whole idea of proms, or went to alternative proms, or never went to the prom.
There’s an emotional attachment to the whole concept, except maybe in all-boy Catholic schools, but priest-bait training grounds probably have their own soundtracks and “edgy” literature provided by G. K. Chesterton. For the rest of the normals, proms are a kind of last hurrah, perhaps one of the last surviving transitional ritual spaces left in American culture, where boys become men and girls become women, even though it’s still just children dancing in the dark to whatever is floating in the musical atmosphere at the time.
Mogwai continue their journey from soundtracking the saddest alterna-prom you’ve ever heard to a shiny, post-punk 21st century shindig fumbling in a futuristic hayloft after the main event. In human terms, this means if you enjoyed Mr. Beast then you will enjoy The Hawk Is Howling; if you pine for the days of Young Team and CODY, you will not enjoy another step away from the low-key rumblings and whispered Scottishness of the sort that would entertain a slight, wry girl in a hooded sweatshirt who knew all the best bands three months before anyone else. There are more than a few nods to pop territory here, including the single “The Sun Smells Too Loud” and that girl grew up and had a few kids and a backyard, no longer knowing who the best new bands are but still three steps ahead of all the other moms in town.
Actually, “The Sun Smells Too Loud” – in addition to being a silly name on an album with a silly name and surrounded by other silly names that evoke silliness – is kind of weak for a single; in growing up, the girl-made-cool-mom doesn’t really have time for super-long builds anymore. The more obviously Mogwai-esque “Scotland’s Shame” would have been a much better choice, if keeping the old school happy was the goal. Hell, there’s plenty here to keep everyone happy as they shuffle back and forth in the dark, heads resting on chests, hands tracing the pattern of the ruffled straps of dresses. I suspect “Kings Meadow” was written solely for that purpose, or “Danphe and the Brain” or “Local Authority” or “Thank You Space Expert” – there’s an awful lot of awkward tenderness going on.
Opener “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead” is a piano-led buildup culiminating in the usual terrific bombast, while “Batcat” follows as the token barnburner, though perhaps not as shockingly cocksure as Mr. Beast‘s “Glasgow Mega-Snake”. I still find myself drawn back to both “Scotland’s Shame” and album closer “The Precipice” as the most striking and perhaps old-fashioned tracks on the album. The former’s organ-driven slow riff to nowhere grabs my ears by the balls, even if I’ve been to nowhere a hundred times.
I like old Mogwai and I like new Mogwai, but I mostly like realizing that the prom that exists in my head is my problem, and not theirs. There’s more than a few reviewers who didn’t get this memo, but it’s not their fault either. Accidentally imprinting yourself with songs from Young Team or CODY a decade ago is something a lot of us have done. I presume it’s why most of us listen to music obsessively, and why trying to recapture that feeling is often so terribly painful.
End Note: Matador Record’s online distribution system is decent and mostly very fast, but could use some improvements. Their downloader utility is absolutely useless on my system, and having to download tracks by hand kind of sucks it. But still, the album was eight dollars and DRM free, so I can live with clicking a dozen times.