A light from underground

Peter Mulvey has just surfaced from playing a cave full of 100 geniuses.

“It’s a very special gig,” the celebrated singer/songwriter noted by cell phone early last week, then en route to a more conventional show in Baltimore. “It’s sort of hilarious.”

Mulvey did his musical mining in West Virginia’s Potomac Highlands; like last year, he gushes, the experience was dynamite. The show was part of the annual National Youth Science Camp, a month of progressive learning and outdoorsy fun for two top science students from each state following high-school graduation.

“These are kids like I was,” Mulvey, 33, reveals. “They’re different. In this case, it’s ’cause they’re bright; in my case, it’s ’cause I was a nerd.”

Midway through the young brainiacs’ summer stay, they were taken on a field trip down into a dark cavern. And then the lights come up, revealing Mulvey, and the sound of brightness rising like steam from underground.

Success, the Milwaukee-based performer maintains, is about calling your own shots. After all, Elvis never did a cave tour.

“Last year, some explorers — some cave spelunkers — just happened into the cave [during the show],” Mulvey relates with a chuckle. “I don’t even know what they thought.”

Here’s a pretty good guess: Wow.

The trouble with poets

So few of us see ourselves clearly.

A Mulvey line from an as-yet-unreleased album tentatively titled Kitchen Radio: “The same old thirst for more until they put you in the dirt.”

Mulvey’s own life is pretty damn fulfilled, he insists. He and his wife own a home within blocks of all three of his brothers, two of whom have kids. His folks are alive and in good health, enjoying being grandparents. Mulvey relishes performing and makes a pretty good living as a musician: He tours steadily; he’s written scores for some hip theater pieces; his painfully beautiful “On the Way Up,” from Rapture (Eastern Front, 1995), landed on the WB TV network’s Felicity.

Yet increasingly, the heart of Mulvey’s music’s is a kind of hollow existential throb, that perpetual quest for that one true thing not there.

What, then, does Peter Mulvey yearn for?

“Oh, Lord,” he says.

“I’ve got the three big bases covered in life,” he begins, really digging into the question. “I’ve got something to do that really means something to me, and somewhere to do it. And then, basically, the people to do it with.” (Mulvey has worked with many of the same musicians for years, including longtime songwriting partner David “Goody” Goodrich.)

So with all those things in place, it’s time, he posits, to think a little more about meaning.

“Once you’re secure, you pretty much have to start thinking about why there’s security,” he elaborates. “So the question becomes: How do you make this a more harmonious place?”

“Of course,” he adds lightly, “maybe all of what I’m thinking now is horses••t.”

Mulvey is a thinker; his writing can be so incisive you will check your ears for blood. But fundamentally, he is a feeler — a poet. Crack open his best songs, and the exposed marrow drips with meter, symbol and soul-swollen imagery. Oh, and wit.

“The trouble with poets,” Mulvey sings in the song of the same name, “is they talk too much.”

As such, his music has a tendency toward that kind of sweeping cinematic grandeur a la U2 or The Waterboys (his most evident early influence).

“The sky fell last Wednesday,” Mulvey croons on “Wings of the Ragman,” from The Trouble With Poets (Signature Sounds, 2000), his finest album. “It broke into pieces, and every shard made a sound.”

The older this smart-guy songwriter gets, the more intuitive his writing seems to become, anchored by an emphatic guitar style as centered on rhythm as it is on melody. There is funk in his funk.

“My friends think I’m a pessimist,” he admits, “because I constantly put things in end-zone terms — like, y’know, ‘We walk around for about 70 years and we die.’ I’m sort of constantly thinking about that.

“But from where I sit, I feel like an optimist,” he continues. “I feel like you should look at things as they are, as unflinchingly as you can. And try not to be rose-colored about it.

“We live in a violent world, and in a harsh world,” Mulvey declares. “That said, it’s also a beautiful world and a remarkable opportunity to be here and be human, to sort of get ahold of your own mind.

“I feel like I’ve become happier and happier the more I’ve done that,” he admits. “It sounds weird, but if I have an ideology, it’s something like: realism that somehow leads to happiness.”

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