At first glance, the album title Happy Songs for Happy People seems almost as ironic as the name of their previous album, Rock Action. After listening to the album, however, it's apparent that its title isn't just meant as a joke. Though "happy" isn't necessarily the first word that springs to mind when describing the band's intricate, brooding style, it is a word and emotion that is both simple and profound, much like the direction Mogwai's music takes here. Happy Songs for Happy People takes the focus and restraint of Rock Action to greater lengths, but it never feels like a rehash of their previous work. The palette of sounds the band uses -- which includes rolling guitars and pianos, swelling strings, persuasive but un-showy drumming, and occasional forays into distortion and electronics -- is a relatively small one, but the band uses it wisely on tracks as diverse as the lovely, understated "Kids Will Be Skeletons" (arguably the "happiest" song on the album) and the gloriously dense finale, "Stop Coming to My House," which piles layers and layers of distorted drums, guitars, and synths atop each other. Mogwai also employs its usual quietly beautiful/explosively noisy dynamic formula expertly, particularly on the gorgeous "Killing All the Flies," which feels much longer (in a good way) than four and a half minutes.
Old-school Mogwai fans disappointed by the relative brevity of most of Happy Songs for Happy People's songs should be pleased by "Ratts of the Capital," which, over the course of eight minutes, nearly reaches the epic proportions of the Young Team/Come on Die Young era. Once again, though, it's not merely a return to their old sound: The track begins with darkly chiming guitars and xylophones and then builds to a crushing climax, but even its heaviest moments are leavened with beauty, and its nearly symmetrical rise and fall make it fit perfectly with the rest of the album. Fortunately, though, the new techniques Mogwai explores on this album are just as satisfying, if not more so, than the band's familiar ones: "Golden Porsche"'s richly mellow bass and pianos sound more akin to Americana than post-rock, while "I Know You Are But What Am I?"'s shuffling, piston-like rhythm and twinkling synths are both brooding and childlike. A strangely dreamy, reverent feel winds through the album, surfacing on the Spiritualized-esque "Boring Machines Disturbs Sleep" and "Moses? I Amn't," which has a buzzing synth bass so deep it makes your brain vibrate. In some ways, Happy Songs for Happy People is almost too consistent -- by the time its second half rolls around, it's easy to take its dense beauty for granted. The upside is that it's one of those rare albums where you're convinced that you've just heard the song that is going to be your favorite -- until you hear the next song, and then the song after that. With Happy Songs for Happy People, Mogwai gets to have it both ways -- it's ironic and sincere, concise and expansive, challenging and accessible, and it's one of the band's best albums, no two ways about it. ~ Heather Phares