Photo by Kenneth Bachor
Top Songs is a feature in which we definitively handpick the very best songs in an artist or band’s catalog. Sounds simple, right? Oh, if only.
Most articles about Mark Mulcahy, Polaris, or Miracle Legion take on a similar tone. They tell a tale tinged with disappointment, one of underappreciated talent, rough breaks, and falling just short of a dream after coming tantalizingly close to it. This isn’t one of those pieces.
This list is about the dozens of people I’ve met who found The Backyard or Surprise Surprise Surprise in their youth and carried it with them into adulthood. It’s about several older friends still able to vividly describe a Miracle Legion show they attended 30 years ago. It’s about a frontman who opened up Thom Yorke to new ideas about songwriting and singing. It’s about a guitarist who helped inspire Ryan Adams to pick up an acoustic guitar. It’s about two friends who reinvented themselves as a duo after losing their rhythm section and came back as a full band with their most experimental album to date after being left for dead in major label purgatory. It’s not a story many bands would script out for themselves, but it’s one worth telling — even if to an audience of thousands rather than millions.
In anticipation of Miracle Legion’s upcoming reunion show at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, we pored over a catalog we love and came up with these 10 songs. They’re songs we wear like comfortable, old clothes, and yet they continue to tug and catch when we put them on, as if to let us know there’s still something else left to be discovered, confronted, or appreciated in them. Really, that’s what this article is about: a batch of damn-good songs far too meaningful to ever leave us feeling disappointed.
10. “A Heart Disease Called Love”
Glad EP (1988)
Typical. Hype a band’s songwriting prowess and then throw a cover song into their top 10. But “A Heart Disease Called Love” just sounds like a Miracle Legion song. Originally by punk poet John Cooper Clarke, the band’s version pumps warm and steady — just shy of a country flavor — and places Mulcahy out on the edge of the world to self-diagnosis. The last minutes turn into a duet between Mr. Ray Neal’s nudging guitars and Mulcahy’s lonely harmonica, and the listener can picture the latter slowly coming into view, either holding hope or his own heart in his hand. I’m never quite sure which one.
They’re Out to Play:
09. “Closer to the Wall”
The Backyard EP (1984)
“When I listen back, we were a lot more grindy or hard than we get thought of as,” Mulcahy told me earlier this year. “There was an edge of danger,” added Neal. “Closer to the Wall”, the second track off the band’s debut, should have forever put the label “jangle pop” to rest. Mulcahy sounds buried up to his neck in sand, doing all he can to be heard over his frantic bandmates before finally admitting defeat as Mr. Ray’s reeling guitar and Jeff Wiederschall’s drums rally and collide during the song’s last frenzied rush. And the word “wall” being repeated as cymbals crash at the end? That might as well be the sound of Mulcahy’s head banging against a concrete wall until he passes out. Jangle pop, my ass.
They’re Out to Play:
Portrait of a Damaged Family (1997)
A duet between Mulcahy’s wistful vocals and Mr. Ray’s glowing guitar, “Homer” may feel a bit out of place on Portrait of a Damaged Family. And yet, the simple exchanges between the two and the lyrical imagery of fathers, sons, and boyhood heroes ground the band’s most eccentric album. It’s a callback to the sparseness and subject matter of earlier work, but also a reminder that there’s something special when Mulcahy and Mr. Ray come together. As Mulcahy reflected, “Playing alongside Ray is always going to feel right, especially when we start playing those Miracle Legion songs.” During the choruses of “Homer”, Mulcahy laments: “With just a little more, she’d have been a homer.” From the clip below, it’s clear that when he and Neal play together, rarely does the ball die on the warning track.
They’re Out to Play: