Good music excites the blood and inflames the passions. Bad music pretty much does the same, but from the other direction. What about music that is neither good nor bad, or is both good and bad? Listening to Clare Maguire’s second album, Stranger Things Have Happened, I was left pondering exactly these questions. There are mistakes; there are bits that are spot on. There are bits that are sparse; there are bits that are overworked. Once it all stopped playing I found I was unable to really recall what I had just been listening to; the aural equivalent of staring into space for a while.
After Maguire’s debut, 2011’s Light After Dark, failed to be as commercially successful as hoped, and was met by mixed reviews from the critics, Maguire fell into a pattern of heavy drinking which took a great toll on her health. Maguire received treatment for her alcoholism in 2012 and, after a stint in rehab, took some timeout from the music business and slowly returned to song-writing in 2013, releasing music in a trickle online before releasing a couple of EPs. Stranger Things Have Happened is the culmination of Maguire’s process of fully returning to music, and ensuring that she is in the driving seat of her career.
For the tumultuous circumstances leading to its creation, Stranger Things Have Happened is a surprisingly composed and restrained album. Perhaps too restrained, as the album lacks a defining character, which is ideal for people seeking sonic wallpaper, but for anyone seeking a frisson it is sadly lacking. There is notable noise on album opener, Faded, and later on Hanging in the Stars, which would be forgivable if the entire record had a lo-fi/demo feel but, as is, it detracts from the variable quality of the musical components. The electronic beat of Swimming sits at odds with the piano, guitar, and vocal focus of the other songs.
Aside from Maguire’s versatile, if patchy vocals, the music of Stranger Things Have Happened is arranged around piano and/or guitar parts, and it is because of this that the inconsistent qualities of the compositions get thrown into sharp relief; stronger compositions sit alongside weaker one, or compelling musical phrases are counterpointed by clichéd riffs within the one song. Titular song, Stranger Things Have Happened, features a grating, limply strummed, autoharp, which matches the high and hollow vocal delivery, and a string section is dragooned into the mix in an attempt to add gravitas. The Valley – which is strongly reminiscent of Feist’s 1234 – features one of the strongest vocal performances of the album, yet the production process hasn’t adequately captured them.
Lead single, Elizabeth Taylor, isn’t the strongest song on the album, nor is it the weakest, so it serves as an appropriate overview of Stranger Things Have Happened, in that it is alright and not too bad; it has its good bits (the piano part) and its bad (the average vocals); it’s easy to listen too, but not too exciting. Maguire obviously felt burned by the experience of her previous album and the methods of its production, but it is difficult not to feel that she has swung too far the other way with Stranger Things Have Happened, and that there is a happy medium between that would have resulted in a record that she, as an artist, could be proud of and that would be more than an average listening experience.