Expressions in contrasts
In November 2017, Scott McCaughey, leader of the musical collective The Minus 5 along with guitarist Peter Buck, suffered a major stroke that stripped away his musical knowledge. After his doctor told his wife that he would never play music again, McCaughey immediately started planning an album detailing his therapy and rehabilitation, resulting in The Minus 5’s latest release Stroke Manor. Every track is inspired by the notes he took of random thoughts that occurred to him during his recovery. The process is evident in the result. Stroke Manor is a vivid, bold and expansive set of musical ideas that sacrifices cohesion for raw expressiveness to great success.
The album thrives on the spectrum of emotions that’s created by its creative textural contrast between the vocal effects and the instrumentations. The opener, “Plascent Folk,” features the striking juxtaposition of the soft, slightly muted acoustic strumming with the robotic vocals, evoking a dystopian sense of poetic sensibility that’s at the intersection of wistful nostalgia and the uncanny valley. Similarly in “My Collection,” the brash guitar is paired with the slightly distorted and punctuating vocals that are voicing a rather melodically sunny chorus, creating a sense of dissonance and disconnect that’s equal parts confusing and interesting. The vocals mix is switched up once again in “Beacon From RKO,” in which a choppy and muffled vocal line sits over an alternative rock groove, giving a glimpse into McCaughey’s disjointed state of mind that’s relearning how to communicate.
The band expands this textural contrast to more expressive, less technical, means as well, giving even more nuance to the complexity of McCaughey’s emotions. In “Beatles Forever (Little Red),” the subtle distorted soundscape, the hauntingly consistent tambourine and the unexpected chord changes bubble under the pleasant melody and the sweet harmonies, evoking an impressive delicately disturbing ambiance. This dissonance is also present in “Bleach Boys & Beach Girls,” in which harsh-sounding instrumentals underscore an understated and distorted, but melodically bright, vocal line, embodying the humorous and nonsensical cheekiness in the lyrics. The instrumentations not only juxtapose and contrast, but they also help bring out emotions in McCaughey’s vocals in the more straightforward tracks such as “Well In Fact She Said” and “Top Venom.” The compositions of these tracks rely less on the ambient sublime and more on the performed expressiveness, featuring growling distorted guitars that bring out the abrasiveness in the sweet timbre of McCaughey’s voice, adding to the complexity of emotions.
Stroke Manor is intended to be a showcase of the therapeutic powers of music, and it fulfills this role with a delightful rawness. The Minus 5 favors chaos over cohesion to great success, giving an honest glimpse into McCaughey’s damaged, but recovering mind after surviving a stroke. With bold juxtapositions of textures, timbre and brightness, the constant musical contrasts that prevail the album help strike a balance between alien and nostalgic, familiar and foreign, fragmented and whole.