Released less than a year after their 2019 album 6 Lenins, Mission Bells finds the Proper Ornaments in the middle of a creative burst. Most of the songs came together during soundchecks while the band was touring Europe. Once back in James Hoare's home studio, the quartet set to work getting the songs on tape quickly, without a lot of fuss or overdubbing. It makes for an immediate, intimate sound that creeps and crawls like a melancholy spider. Tracks like the drum machine-driven "Black Tar" or the acoustic ballad "The Wolves at the Door" are stripped down to the bare essentials, given restrained vocal treatment by Hoare and co-leader Max Oscarnold while barely registering on the decibel scale. A few tracks break out of the whispered gloom a little bit: the calmly loping "Downtown" borrows some of Petula Clark's '60s hit and comes as close as the band ever will to writing a true pop song, "Flophouse Calvary" adds some twanging Western guitars, and the album-opening "Purple Heart" lurks menacingly with dark organ undertones blended into the mix. It's a typically restrained performance from the band overall, but this time it's even more buttoned up and dialed down. Even the rare songs that have some forward motion, like "Broken Insect," or turn up the jagged guitar noise a little, like "Music of the Traffic," feel like they are coated in a heavy wool blanket. It makes for the kind of album one needs to concentrate on very carefully to get the full impact of the gentle melodies and buried lyrics. Even more so than usual, the band are interested in keeping things under wraps, hinting at emotions rather than smacking the listener in the face with them. If that means the album is a little harder to immediately appreciate than some of their other work, or seems a little remote or even unfinished, at first, that's alright. A tiny amount of dedication on the listener's part will unlock the tender beauty and familiar feelings that are to be expected from a Proper Ornaments album.
AllMusic Review by Tim Sendra