June 16, 2020

Since the 2015 debut Please Come Home first landed, John Mitchell’s Lonely Robot has proved unexpectedly prolific, producing a total of four albums in just five years. It seems odd that an artist who claims to be a lazy procrastinator is also this creatively fertile, particularly considering Lonely Robot is far from the only music he’s involved in (Kino, Frost* and Arena all put out albums in that same span). While he may not be the chief songwriter in every one of those bands, that’s still a gargantuan amount of music by anyone’s standards. ‘Perhaps he and I have a different interpretation of laziness’, I mused, as I settled in for my 10:00 am nap.

Worst. Yearbook photo. Ever.

Feelings Are Good, the surprisingly quick followup to last year’s Under Stars, is something of a thematic departure from the preceding three albums (commonly referred to as the ‘Astronaut trilogy’), but no need to fear; there’s no drastic fork in the Lonely Robot road just yet. Yes, the lyrics are more earthbound, rooted in Mitchell’s own life experiences, and convey a more personal feel than the trilogy did. Musically, however, Feelings falls squarely in line with those efforts, with the same balance of rockers, ballads and proggier tracks already familiar to listeners. Mitchell has successfully crafted a sound of his own over time, blending styles drawn from his own influences with his production savvy, and even incorporating some of the better elements of his other bands. His music can be slick, but the albums aren’t so polished that they lose their edge. His keen ear for memorable melodies is a strength, and his compositions are awash with addictive hooks and choruses. He also has a knack for restraint, a quality often absent in the progressive rock genre people tend to fasten his name to. There are no superfluous keyboard pyrotechnics or tacked-on extensions that can bloat the works of his contemporaries, nor the kind of muddled, complex arrangements that shift the focus away from the songs themselves.

Each of these albums could rightfully be released under Mitchell’s own name, especially this latest. While the always excellent and reliable Craig Blundell commanded the drum throne, Mitchell played every other instrument. He also wrote every song, produced, engineered, mixed and mastered the entire album himself. It doesn’t get much more ‘solo’ than that. But then, a moniker like Lonely Robot carries a bit more intrigue, lends itself to cooler logo design ‘cred’, and ironically appeals to human curiosity more than a boring ol’ human name ever could. Lead-off single Life Is A Sine Wave has been well received and is a solid example of the rockier elements of Feelings Are Good, but like any album worth its salt, there’s no one track that will encapsulate all its facets.

The strongest material here is among Mitchell’s best ever…

The album is dotted with little quirks – like the oddball vocoder intro that serves as the title track – and a fair bit of variety, too. To wit: the bouncy, upbeat Into The Lo-Fi exhibits Mitchell’s affinity for catchy choruses with some tasty supporting keyboard parts, and a brief solo spot for added flavour. Spiders is a driving, melodic earworm track with Mitchell taking an elegant guitar solo and giving it everything he’s got with the closing vocals. Crystalline begins as a gentle, heartfelt piano ballad with bravely cathartic lyrics: “Seasons may come and they sure as hell go, but you can’t change the course of a heart, so I’m covered in shame and take all of your blame, and I’m turning this pain into art…” The song blooms into a lush, emotional climax and is one of the album’s major highlights. In another more fair and just time, these songs would have garnered favourable radio response and Mitchell would get the credit he is sorely due.

Armour For My Heart is a track that straddles styles. Lyrically, it reads as another ballad, but with its prominent, funky bass and drum part, it’s an entirely different musical experience to the more tender Crystalline, growing to an energy and vibe that recalls the better elements of Rabin-era Yes. The moody piano opening to Suburbia sets the tone for an adventurous piece where a lot more happens than its five minute running time would suggest, passionate vocals and guitar dominating the second half. But Mitchell saves the two best tracks for near the end: the electronica-tinged Keeping People As Pets unfolds into not only the best cut on the album, but one of the best from all four albums. Blundell’s impressive ability is at the forefront, particularly during the instrumental second half, and his name in the credits is always a welcome sight. If you’ve ever gone back to listen to a new song for a second time before finishing the album, as I did, you might have an idea of the strength of this one. Army Of One is the ballsiest of the bunch; a compelling, powerhouse anthem with Mitchell once again belting out the chorus with formidable prowess. An absolute corker of a track, and if Lonely Robot shows are able to happen in the future, one that should prove a major contender for set closer.

It’s tough to predict where Feelings Are Good will eventually settle in fans’ own rankings. On one hand, it feels like a bit of an underdog due to its secession from its thematically-linked cousins, and may have to swim a little harder to earn its place. And like most albums, it isn’t flawless – one or two tracks feel like we might have heard them before – but that’s a minor criticism. What’s important is that the strongest material here is among Mitchell’s best ever, and after a half dozen spins, it’s safe to say the album stands confidently alongside its predecessors. Hopefully this bout of productivity continues… further standalone volumes might illuminate this one’s strengths even more. Recommended listening!

Feelings Are Good · Into The Lo-Fi · Spiders · Crystalline · Life Is A Sine Wave · Armour For My Heart · Suburbia · The Silent Life · Keeping People As Pets · Army Of One · Grief Is The Price Of Love · The Silent Life (Orchestral version) · Crystalline (Orchestral version)