The Minus 5

Stroke Manor

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Cartoonist Terry LaBan once drew a piece called "The Optipess" that reflected his belief that his pessimistic side frequently expected things to go wrong in his life, but at the same time his inner optimist strove to be happy with what fate would bring. Scott McCaughey has long been one of rock's greatest Optipess-ists; there is usually a snarky undertow in his lyrics and a fascination with bad luck and failure, but there's lots of humor and the music reflects a deep and genuine love for the healing powers of music. Both sides of this emotional equation are thrown into sharp relief on 2019's Stroke Manor from McCaughey's ongoing pop project the Minus 5. In November 2017, McCaughey suffered a stroke that forced him to spend three weeks in the hospital (ten days were in intensive care). The stroke rendered McCaughey mute for a while, and his doctor warned him he would probably never play music again. Just three days into hospitalization, he began writing lyrics as he struggled to force his brain to communicate, and by January, McCaughey was remarkably well enough to play a few songs at a benefit to help cover his medical bills. The lyrics he wrote in the hospital became the basis of Stroke Manor, and in the truest sense this is an album about the hard road of recovery and the fear and anxiety that is never far behind. Some of the words are stream-of-consciousness word association that have no literal meaning (the first verse of "Message of Mother" goes, "She said, but last when if/We combed together, two was/Shuttered bare, Ajo countess/I failed our backyard's fuzz"). Others are a stark reflection of his condition at its worst (most of "Top Venom" was assembled from statements on flash cards he used to communicate with his doctors, such as "I am short of breath" and "I am in pain"). Even the most upbeat numbers here, such as "Bleach Boys & Beach Girls" and "My Master Bull," feel off-kilter and uncertain. But this also sounds just like a Scott McCaughey album; even when the lyrics are incomprehensible, the rhythms and cadences are clearly his, and the melodies are the sort of deliciously skewed '60s-influenced pop that has always been his strong suit (he didn't call one of these songs "Beatles Forever" for nothing). And while a bunch of McCaughey's friends pitched in to help, as is usually the case with the Minus 5 (among them Peter Buck, Jeff Tweedy, Corin Tucker, Steve Wynn, and John Moen), Stroke Manor is first and foremost the work of a one-of-a-kind talent who, for all his setbacks, has not lost his gifts or his determination to make the most of them. Stroke Manor is an Optipess album if there ever was one, but despite the dark clouds, the Opti side wins out, and this is a unique and truly powerful work.

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