Two songs into Mikal Cronin’s sophomore album, MCII, he decides to tell, not show, unveiling the record’s thesis statement earnestly: “I’m pretty good at making things harder to see / And turning problems back to me / It’s not the way I want to be.” The 27-year-old garage-punk wunderkind has been playing music—often with high-school buddy, Ty Segall, who drops a couple guitar solos on MCII—for about 10 years now, so it makes sense that he’s getting a little self-reflective. But more than that, he’s buffed the edges on his oft-scrappy rock ’n’ roll, which is also understandable. When artists soften with time, their music often loses some of its appeal; rarely does a songwriter nail his voice as successfully as Cronin has here.
With few exceptions, MCII finds the California rocker turning to acoustic strums instead of walls of feedback, jaunty or melancholy piano instead of raucous breakdowns, and gentle backing vocals instead of feral screams. In a recent interview, he called his music “aggressive pop,” but even the aggression is measured, like on the guitar solo from standout “Am I Wrong” or the glorious moment 45 seconds into another standout, “Weight,” where the distortion kicks in. Instead of inducing mosh pits, these elements incite little, pleasurable bursts of serotonin—the kind that gifted musicians performing at the top of their game can provoke in their listeners.
Throughout MCII, Cronin wrestles with self-doubt and self-betterment. “I’m dyin’ to get along with you,” he sings on “See It My Way.” On the pensive “Peace Of Mind,” he echoes Sha Sha-era Ben Kweller, pleading, “Say you want me / Say it loud.” Even the song titles themselves—”Am I Wrong,” “See It My Way,” “Peace Of Mind,” “I’m Done Running From You,” “Don’t Let Me Go”—ooze relatable sentiments for anyone who’s made it through their unstable, uncertain 20s. Now that Cronin nearly has, it’s tempting to wonder what he’ll sing about next. But MCII exhibits such an easy, enjoyable knack for pop songwriting that, whatever it is, it’ll almost certainly be a joy to behold.