Mikal Cronin can’t help doubting himself. At seemingly every turn on MCII — the San Francisco garage rocker’s bright and buoyant sophomore effort — he’s questioning something he has just declared with certainty. “I want it now!” he cries with brazen intensity on “Shout It Out” before defusing his ardor with the very next line: “But do I need it, though?” Self-doubting by its very title, “Am I Wrong” shows him to be a most trepidatious flirt: “I’m ready to go/ Where we’re headed, I don’t know/ But I like you.”
At 27, Cronin is one of garage rock’s brightest young stars, signed to Durham-based indie heavyweight Merge Records and playing bass with the similarly skyrocketing Ty Segall. But in spite of his genre — stereotyped by its unrepentant swagger and constant guitar grime — his songs are all jangling insecurity, huge, sparkling hooks undercut by blasts of booming fuzz and unrepentant emotions.
“It’s just the jarring feeling of a bunch of transition all at once. It’s feeling unsure about what’s going to happen,” Cronin explains. He wrote the songs on his self-titled debut, released in 2011, as he neared graduation at the California Institute of the Arts. He was preparing to step into the real world and give his music a shot. He’d just ended a long-standing relationship, and he was preparing to move away from his hometown of Los Angeles. MCII derives its own restless energy from similar concerns but also from his newfound fame. Cronin has trouble reconciling his growing audience with his own insecurities. The result is another collection fueled by wonderfully crushing doubt.
“That's part of the reason why I titled the record MCII,” he says. “It’s not like a sequel, but it’s more like the second chapter in what I had started to explore in the first record. My life changed dramatically within a couple months, and it’s still changing dramatically. I’m older. I’ve had more experiences. I’ve traveled more. I've gotten through relationships and started new ones and met new people. It’s just kind of a new set of personal challenges and experiences and seeing, noticing a lot of my own personal struggles in my loved ones.”
Mikal Cronin explores these themes of change and uncertainty in varied shades of explosive lo-fi color. His potent and punchy melodies — similar to The Beatles of Revolver and Rubber Soul, but too often reduced to that one comparison — are pushed into overdrive by rough distortion and moments of oddball abandon: the loopy flute solo that closes “Is it Alright,” the industrial throb that lends gut-checking intensity to tangled riffs of “Green and Blue.”
MCII is a cleaner outing. Pianos tinkle gracefully. Acoustic 12-strings offer tender counterpoints to burly electric riffs. If his debut resembled The Beatles, then this offering drifts toward Wings, hooks and melody taking over as the primary focus, leaving the experimental goodies to provide tasty texture. While different, the results are every bit as thrilling as Cronin’s previous work.
“The Weight” starts MCII with one of its best inclusions. “I’ve been starting over for a long time,” Cronin passionately quips, implying the strains of personal responsibility on a young mind. Fuzz crashes down in the chorus, emphasizing the angst as he offers his perfectly vague complaint: “I’m not ready for the weight again.” Is it the pit in the bottom of his stomach? The burden of expectation? Impossible to say, but for the listener it’s whatever makes sense. Cronin’s songs resound with this kind of universal applicability, the staple of essential pop.
“What I’ve always liked about this project is it’s pretty wide open for me,” he offers. “Not like I can do whatever I want, but if I can get people behind me, supporting me, enjoying what I do, I could take them anywhere I want to go. I have ideas of non-standard record projects that I’m thinking about. But first and foremost I just want to continue to write the best songs that I can write. Beyond that, I don’t really know. I want to keep it interesting for myself personally.”
It’s hard to say where Cronin’s interests will take him next. If the restless experiments of his first record are any indication, he could do almost anything. But so long as he pairs powerful and personal feelings with addictive melody, he’s going to stand out.
— Jordan Lawrence is music editor at Shuffle Magazine and a contributing writer at The Independent.
who: Mikal Cronin, with Shannon and the Clams and Impossible Vacation.
where: Emerald Lounge
when: Saturday, June 22, at 9 p.m. $10.