BY JOHN SCHACHT
A good many Chris Mills fans have longed for a return to the sharp-tongued, country-flavored vignettes of Every Night Fight for Your Life or the rich Spector textures and pleading heartbreak of Kiss It Goodbye, his first two full-lengths from 1998 and 2000, respectively. Since then Mills has wandered, with seemingly as little direction as the protagonist in Alexandria’s elegiac opener, “Wild Places,” through various stylistic shifts with too-often underwhelming results.
That’s what you get for setting the bar so high.
On his latest, though, Mills surrounds himself with a band —The Distant Stars — that proves up to the task of delivering his sharpest set of songs since those early days. Much of that credit goes to Norwegian co-producer Crister Knutsen. His piano parts form the backbone of Alexandria’s ambitious pop songs like “Rubicon” and “Castaways,” songs that also recall Kiss It Goodbye’s rueful scenarios.
Mills’ narratives still suit his yearning vocals, minus his younger self’s stinging, often self-lacerating barbs. In their place are stories where the “lights are fading from our eyes,” as he sings on the orchestrated ballad “When We Were Young,” and pleas for maturity and understanding —“Let us know what we have been, let us become what we will be, in the quiet corners of the earth or in the crowded city streets,” he sings on the grand tableau of “Quiet Corners.”
Mills can still crush a sad-bastard ballad, as he does over solo piano on “The Sweet Hereafter,” his voice cracking over weeper-lines like “there is magic in the mountains, but we live down on these streets/one day we may lay beneath meadows full of grass/or be buried beneath concrete.” But Mills is at his best on the up-tempo, Farfisa-accented rock of the title track, where his entreaties take on the urgency that characterized his early works. Mills likens the search for understanding and peace of mind to the lost languages that vanished with the burning of the library at Alexandria.
That scenario doesn’t exactly inspire warm-and-cuddly feelings, and without the restless angst of those earlier records the heavy weight of disappointment can suffocate the feint-of-heart over the course of the whole record. But Mills’ music has never been about easy answers, and his songwriting here is, for the first time in a while, practically impeachable. Besides, it’s the search that defines most of our lives’ meaning, which Mills captures here better than he has in a long time
DOWNLOAD: “Quiet Corners” “Alexandria” “Wild Places” “Rubicon”