Mikal Cronin’s latest album, The Seeker, is the most assertive effort of the talented multi-instrumentalist’s career. From the thematic lyrical arc to the cleaned-up vocal mix to the restless and ambitious sonic landscape, the scope of the record is pretty clear — Cronin is certain about his uncertain nature.
“I’m not a super stoic guy — it’s natural for me to write about how I’m trying to navigate through my emotional life,” says Cronin, who will play Thursday night at the Independent. “And for this record I wanted my voice to be really clean, really up front. I had this idea of making the narrator for the album to sound confident in his unclarity of the world.”
The result is a stunning combination of breezy Laurel Canyon rock, stirring ballads of pure Americana, and propulsive garage pop nuggets. It’s a return to form for Cronin after a four-year break between albums. The Seeker is further proof that while Cronin may have been groomed among acerbic punk contemporaries such as John Dwyer and Ty Segall, when it comes to creating melodic, weighty rock songs, he has no equal.
Normally prolific, Cronin struggled to finish his fourth album, enduring bouts of writer’s block, a painful breakup and a grueling touring schedule with Segall (a songwriter whose production knows no bounds) during his hiatus.
Eventually he retired to the hills of Idyllwild, California to clear his mind and devote himself wholly to creating his new album. That noble endeavor ran into troubles too, as Cronin was forced to evacuate near the end of his session due to wildfires in the area. He narrowly escaped the inferno, absconding with his makeshift studio and cat Ernie while the flames moved in on his rented cabin.
Cronin described his time in the Southern California mountains as somewhat beneficial though — while he didn’t flourish creatively as he would have liked, some of the phenomena in the area coincided with his own ruminative thoughts.
“It was quite the experience, because I was writing and thinking of fire a lot,” says Cronin. “The rebirth and natural process of a forest fire is a really appropriate metaphor for life — how we are constantly rebuilding ourselves.”
Some of those harrowing encounters are described literally in The Seeker — in the song “Fire,” Cronin sings about witnessing flames coming up the hills. But mostly, the album is reflective of the disorder and insecurity that occurs when we are forced to move on — to put the past behind and embrace an undefined future.
In delving into such a precarious topic, Cronin avails himself emotionally in ways uncommon even for himself — no small achievement for a songwriter unafraid to detail his sensitivity. On “Guardian Well” — a billowing California rock track that ebbs and flows in ways that recall the mountains in which it was written — Cronin reaches for the highest possible notes, screaming out that “I don’t know how/I can see this world through eyes like yours.” His voice cracks, rips, and tears on tracks like “Fire” and “Show Me,” and on “Feel It All,” he pours himself into every lyric, leaving rivers of sentiment seeping through the microphone.
“I tried to find the key that pushed my voice to make it sound interested and affected in that way,” says Cronin. “I can get self-conscious about my voice, but I thought it was important to kind of tap my limits here.”
In general, there seems to be something bigger and grander about The Seeker, the first album of Cronin’s career to have an official title and not a roman numeral style moniker. The extended break, the creative and personal difficulties, the witnessing of scorched landscapes — all those travails ultimately contributed to an album wholly separate from his prior discography.
“It’s a very different record than the first three,” says Cronin. “I named those all Led Zeppelin style, because it was like they all went together — I was just rolling on the same wave of inspiration. Having this break, I really approached this album differently.”
Ideally, this album will bring new recognition for Cronin, a perpetually underrated musician who has consistently lived in the shadows of Dwyer, Segall, and other artists who formerly lived in San Francisco and made this city the temporary home for America’s preeminent garage rock scene (a term they would consider disdainful, nonetheless).
Yet, fame and notoriety are two elements that register little in the world of Cronin, who now lives in Los Angeles (although he said San Francisco is still his favorite city in the world, and under the right circumstances, he mentioned he would be more than willing to move back). While Cronin continues to wage battles with life’s daily demons, the pursuit of more exposure is unlikely to be a part of that arena.
Instead, he’ll continue to make honest, vulnerable music — trying to find a foothold in a world where the terrain is always rocky and debris-laden.
“I’m a sensitive guy — I struggle with depression and anxiety,” says Cronin. “That’s why I’ve always appreciated music that’s candid. It feels natural for me to write about these things in a direct way, and I hope people recognize and appreciate that.”
Wednesday, Nov. 6, 8 p.m., at the Independent, 628 Divisadero St. $15-$17; theindependentsf.com