In The Canterbury Tales, a group of pilgrims goes on a boring road trip, and the travelers pass the time by telling long, bullshit stories. The tales they share go heavy on allegory (happiness is akin to a confused knight or prideful rooster) and long on despair (love is fleeting, people are shady and god mostly doesn’t care). Though separated by almost 600 years, its winsome themes feel like close precursors to Midlake’s new record, The Courage of Others—a flutesy, strummy paean to earthly woe that would fit neatly inside Chaucer’s mind. Filtered through the very personal prism of frontman Tim Smith, it’s English folk music (sans English folks) that unfolds like the soundtrack to the most urbane Renaissance Faire of all time.
Midlake had a shape-shifting three-album career arc before landing in medieval times, though. Early records mimicked the earnestness of the turn of the millennium with middling results, but the band’s 2006 album, The Trials of Van Occupanther, was a breezy alt-country sleeper hit that unexpectedly propelled the band through a two-and-a-half year global touring juggernaut. So, whither thou goest after that? Back in the band’s humble home in Denton, Texas, their sudden lack of day jobs, paired with 24-hour access to their studio, not only made it easy to dawdle on English antiquities but fall fully down Ye Olde Folk Wormhole. “We could have released an album over a year ago with all the material that we discarded,” says Smith. “But it wouldn’t have been right. Sometimes you just need to keep playing and listen. All these old English folk records started to make sense with the kind of songs I was writing, which were darker and much more personal.”
Smith’s newfound fascination with loopy Pentangle records and the Incredible String Band translated to Courage’s gently picked guitars, lilting harmonies, and subject matter veering heavily towards the earth, dying winters and small mountains—all of which are done in by “Acts of Man” and “Rulers, Ruling All Things.” It‘s as heavy an album made by a band with a touring flute player that is not named Jethro Tull can be. “Don’t laugh!” says Smith, “The flute is taboo for some reason, but I think it’s the most beautiful sound ever next to the human voice. I know it’s not cool. But if you’ve just made a gloomy folk record, being cool is probably not your biggest worry.” Indeed. A bigger worry might be alienating fairweather fans attached to the sunny vibes of the band’s previous work. But Midlake seems oblivious with Courage. It’s a sustained meditation on mortality and human complications that approaches an almost religious intensity, and a weirdly mythic way to tread gently into a new decade.
Stream: Midlake, The Courage of Others