Most stories surrounding Miracle Legion and Mark Mulcahy begin with lament. It’s understandable. Miracle Legion were poised to sit at the college rock throne alongside R.E.M. but were thwarted by mismanagement at record labels and having their discography tied up in legal hell. By the time the band released their final record, Portrait of a Damaged Family, on Mulcahy’s newly launched Mezzotint label in 1996, it went virtually unnoticed.
Yet nothing is ever finished in the modern age, with new reunions being announced seemingly every week. This is the era of second chances for bands, and few are as deserving as Miracle Legion and Mulcahy. For his part, Mulcahy has been revelling in the moment. He came back from his self-imposed hiatus from solo work, brought Polaris to life to perform Music from the Adventures of Pete and Pete, and recently announced reunion dates with his Miracle Legion bandmates. The reissue of Portrait of a Damaged Familyis the logical next step for continuing this band’s story.
The album’s title is appropriate for the circumstances around the release, but it’s also telling of the songs themselves. Mulcahy has been a master storyteller, and not just on the song “Storyteller”. Taken as a literal interpretation, these songs could easily be opening up about different characters in a modern dysfunctional family. And as with any dysfunctional family, there’s just as much affection as there are faults in the relationships. There are young lovers buying pregnancy tests in the vibrant “Madison Park” and days swimming. Later he details drinking a six-pack of Coca-Cola on “Say You Had a Lovely Time” with a 12- or 13-year-old girl who knows her way to hell “because she’s already been.”
The way Mulcahy talks about love oozes with sincerity, like the fluttering feeling of standing at the doorstep after a date waiting to go in for the kiss. Sure, that may sound like a rom-com, but Mulcahy pulls it off without losing his authenticity. Opener “You’re My Blessing” features some of his trademark dialogue, cooly stuttering out his words as he says, “My, my my my my my my/ Aren’t you overdue for a compliment?” His inner poet comes out later as he coos, “You defy description, and I’ve seen a vision of you in a vision of my dreams.” How could someone not be charmed?
But he’s not just roses and chocolates. Right after on “Screamin’”, he shows just how much of a deviant he can be as he vividly dictates his various sexual encounters with an intoxicating lover. He worships her, calling her his religion, and boasts of her control over him as being like voodoo. It’s a bit surreal hearing him sputter out phrases like “fuck and suck” knowing that just prior to this album’s release he was recording music for a children’s television show, but if anything it’s a testament to his artistic range.
The band has always been at its best when they’re delving into nostalgia. It’s why older songs like “All for the Best” and “You’re the One Lee” resonated so much with listeners and critics pegging them as the next big thing. Portrait has several of these moments, one of the most poignant and transcendent being “Homer”. The stripped-down setup is reminiscent of their previous duo record, Me and Mr. Ray, letting Mr. Ray Neal’s understated guitar playing shine as well as giving even closer attention to Mulcahy’s affecting vocals. Baseball is one of the most romanticized sports in art and Miracle Legion reminds the listener why this is. At its most simplistic, “Homer” is a song about a child going to a game with their father. But underneath is a narrative of wondering what could’ve been. There’s the kid trying to catch a ball in the crowd, the father telling a player he’s too good for the team, and of course the stirring chorus of “Just a little more and she’d of been a homer.” It’s a lesson that may not be clear as a child, but one that cuts to the deep-rooted insecurities of adulthood.
Elsewhere on “Gone To Bed at 21”, Mulcahy relates a story of a young man joining to army to win over a girl – a choice that leads to his death.The song is sung from the perspective of the man’s ghost, watching the woman live her life and moving on while lamenting leaving his “ideas in the freezer” and seeing his love letters forgotten in her trunk. “The Depot”, which replaces three songs on the original tracklist, is a welcome addition to the record and includes heart-wrenching one-liners like “a handshake is a funny thing, it sure feels better with a wedding ring” that tell the whole story with so little words.
Portrait never had the chance to be the climactic ending the band may have intended. Now, however, it could be the fresh start they deserve. These songs are too accomplished to have been sitting in the vaults. Let’s hope this isn’t the end. If it is, though, what a beautiful finish it is.
Essential Tracks: “You’re My Blessing”, “Homer”, and “Gone To Bed at 21”