The Courage of Others is an album that at one point Midlake feared they would never make. The follow-up to their 2006 second album The Trials of Van Occupanther – one of the last decade’s most surprising and utterly fantastic records – it took just over one year in total to complete (the same as its predecessor) but a few years to really get started. They couldn’t quite find their sound: songs were scrapped, and motivation must have been low at times.
But still Midlake pursued, and were invigorated when lead singer Tim Smith discovered old albums by English folk protagonists Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention and Pentangle. Elements of their distinctly English folk found their way gently into Midlake’s sound, and contributed in part to the band creating an album that is not, as it could easily have been, a Van Occupanther II, but a different beast altogether. Admittedly, by -beast’ you can read -a fox’ rather than -a bear’, but a different animal it is nonetheless. The soaring harmonies of Van Occupanther are toned down, while flutes, tambourines and finger-picking take a front seat. Tying this all together, as always, are Smith’s slightly monotonic-yet-emotive vocals.
On The Courage of Others, there is no real moment of joyful rocking out, no -Roscoe’ or -Young Bride’. Instead, the songs keep to a fairly consistent mood. There is a pervading sense of sadness or gloominess that casts its veil over the majority of the tracks. It feels at times as though the album was recorded at dusk, during the half-light. For all of its beauty, there is shadow. Pastoral images are what come to mind: creatures tending to themselves in hollows; trees shedding leaves; guitars being strummed in farmhouses and creaky wooden structures. Smith tells us: ‘All that runs on the mountain is mine/A way of life that will surely be gone’ in -Small Mountain’. In press photographs, Midlake are often pictured in the countryside, dressed like lumberjacks, bearded and pensive.
In these songs, the worries that plague Smith are timeless: ‘I will never have the courage of others/I will never approach you at all/I will always start to worry about things/all the many things you can’t control,’ he sings in the album’s title track. The only moment that feels startlingly modern is -Bring Down’ (featuring Stephanie Dosen on backing vocals), which bears more than just a few parallels to Radiohead’s -Exit Music (for a film)’.
It takes time before some of the songs reveal themselves, so there is a danger that things can get slightly monotonous here. Perhaps listening to it as a whole is too much -maybe it is better to experience it in bites than all at once. Is that contrary to the idea of what a great album is? Perhaps, but it’s not contrary to what a great song is – and there are numerous great songs on this album that might get lost because they are painted from the same mood palette as the song that came before them. But stand out tracks include opener -Acts of Man’, -Core Nature’ and -The Horn’. Time will tell if The Courage of Others is a classic, but it’s certainly a timeless album and a wonderful third release from the talented Texans.