Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Wye Oak Tween

This morning, Wye Oak surprise-released a new sorta-album called Tween. It’s been two years since their last LP — the underrated and beautiful Shriek, which we ranked as one of the best albums of 2014 — but this isn’t the official next record from Wye Oak, exactly. It isn’t billed as Album #5. It is eight previously unreleased songs, revisited from the transitional and searching time that elapsed between Civilian and Shriek, eight lost dogs that come together into a work that stands alone in comparison to the group’s last two full-fledged releases, while also being inextricably linked to both. It’s an album that steps sideways and backward and maybe forward, making it the latest weird entry into what has become Wye Oak’s weird trajectory.

When Civilian came out in 2011, it represented the full realization of the sound the duo (singer/guitarist Jenn Wasner and drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack) had been chasing up until that point. It was their breakthrough and, as their third full-length, could plausibly stand as the end of a trilogy. After an album like that, many indie artists go in one of two directions. They follow their initial breakthrough with a stylistic leap, and what was a buzzed-about or respected artist on a steady incline might jump suddenly to headlining festivals and selling out much larger venues. In semi-recent times, Tame Impala’s Currents is a good example of this, as are the War On Drugs’ Lost In The Dream and the National’s High Violet. Or, they double-down on what was starting to click, and offer a refined extension of ideas and sounds they’d already been exploring, something a little new but not divergent enough to potentially thwart the impending coronation. St. Vincent’s self-titled sequel to Strange Mercy belongs in this category.

As a successor to Civilian, Shriek was lost somewhere in-between all of this. It was in the mold of the stylistic leap and it was the much-anticipated album that seemingly should’ve ignited more fervor around the group, yet didn’t. The thing that doesn’t make sense here is that Shriek was well-received; it wasn’t a botched attempt at the stylistic left-turn breakthrough-followup. It just wound up being, well, a quieter release than the one for which the duo seemed primed. A not-insignificant part of this is that Wye Oak’s decision to aggressively ditch their guitar-oriented sound for a synth-y, groove-focused album left some fans and critics scratching their heads. Strange as it seems in the ’10s to be hung up on a rock-oriented band experimenting with a more electronic sound, there was some degree of validity to it. In the perennial conversation about “guitar music being over” or whatever, Wye Oak were a beacon of hope, a band that were wresting raw and vital emotions out of an instrument and form that many would write off as being tapped-out. Even so, Shriek wasn’t some gimmick or willful negation of what the duo had achieved on their first few albums. It was a necessary overhaul in which Wasner and Stack reworked their approach from the ground up, resulting in an album that existed firmly within Wye Oak’s established universe, but also expanded that universe with a set of songs where the melodies and arrangements moved entirely differently than what we’d come to expect from them. It rewrote the rules on what Wye Oak could mean. “I wanted to set a precedent that Wye Oak could be whatever we wanted it to be,” Wasner said in our interview at SXSW this year. “Now that that’s the case, I feel free enough within the confines of this project that I can do anything I want to do.”

So, in several ways, that’s where Tween comes in. It’s the type of counter-narrative whisper of a release that you can get away with more easily when you aren’t saddled with the pressure of having ascended to the peak of the indie world, the point at which each of your records has the weight of being the Next Big Statement from your band. And it’s a release that elucidates what went on behind the scenes of the seemingly abrupt, sharp left-turn that occurred between Civilian and Shriek, while also suggesting what Wye Oak could be now that Shriek has rearranged the borders.

In the press release for the new album, the word “tween” is unpacked: It’s a word that signifies a status in-between things, of fumbling between no longer being one thing but not yet having become the next thing, the idea being that ultimately something better and clearer arrives at the end of this liminal zone. The tracklist of Tween is built on songs that appeared early in the post-Civilian days, and wound up not making sense for Shriek nor whatever it is the band will do next. Musically, it paradoxically sounds both like what could’ve been a transitional half-leap album between the aesthetics of Civilian and those of Shriek, as well as a glimpse of what the future of Wye Oak could be once their old and new selves, their old and new instruments and writing styles, collide and meld together. (In the instance of the former, Tween at times suggests the alternate history in which “Wye Oak With Synths” had been an album-length exercise born from their excellent but still Civilian-esque 2012 Adult Swim single “Spiral,” rather than the songwriting reinvention it became.) And the trick is, well, the album essentially is both of those things. It exhumes a bit of the past the band’s fans had previously missed, but does so in ways that stake territory for the future. It’s a chapter that ruptures the chronology but is still canon.

So, first off: The guitars are back! (Or, rather, if you want to be a stickler about this stuff pre-dating Shriek originally: They never left!) “No Dreaming” and “Too Right” are proper descendants from 2009’s The Knot and Civilian, the former gently luring you toward the eerie explosions of its chorus and the latter a lurching guitar-exorcism of the sort that this band used to stack albums with. In contrast, there’s the feathery, gossamer beauty of “On Luxury,” as clear a cousin to Shriek as the other two are to Shriek’s predecessors. The interesting thing is where the lines begin to blur, first off by having disparate versions of Wye Oak right alongside one another, but then even more so when they start to intertwine. Opener “Out Of Nowhere” is a mostly instrumental prologue that has the airy qualities of Shriek rendered with the autumnal darkness of Wye Oak’s earlier work. The instrumentation of “If You Should See” tumbles like “Civilian” or “Hot As Day,” but Wasner’s vocals soar and glide like “Shriek” and “Before.” Throughout, there are subtle layers, new synth textures and revived guitar leads marking the synthesis of the duo’s once-divided aesthetics. And the songwriting shifts can be felt, too. Another album just like Civilian might’ve felt monotonous. But post-Shriek, Wasner and Stack are able to draw on each album to give us stuff that sounds familiarly Wye Oak, but also surprising for how it recalls various corners of their personality at once.

It all culminates with the stunning closer “Watching The Waiting” — Tween’s surefire, immediate entry if you were to make a list of Wye Oak’s finest songs. “Watching The Waiting” doesn’t sound quite like anything else in Wye Oak’s catalog. It has a breakneck momentum not unlike past songs, but a less burdened one; it’s brighter and sprightlier than the heavy churn of The Knot and Civilian. Some of the dreaminess of “Shriek” and “Schools Of Eyes” is in there, but it lifts off in a different way. The song’s more organic than Shriek, but its drama is primarily driven by the interplay of Wasner’s vocals and a lead synth line that waits to peel open into a wailing solo just short of the two minute mark. Much of Wye Oak’s pre-Shriek work felt like something mysterious and foreboding and brooding lurking in darkened forest corners. This returns to a more pastoral quality, but instead sounds like mystic visions at daybreak. If Tween is a document of an era of transition that also hints at what the new Wye Oak could explore, then “Watching The Waiting” is hopefully the promising preview of what’s to come.

Releasing an album like this, one that complicates the story as much as it fleshes it out, is a fitting move for Wye Oak. As much as catharsis is a crucial building block for much of their music, resolution is not. Their albums have arcs, but rarely does it feel as if there is some definitive answer or triumph that’s occurred. The lone outlier here is likely Shriek closer “Logic Of Color,” the shimmering, bright epilogue to the more otherworldly and insular tracks that precede it. Consider, in comparison, the way Civilian crests with “Hot As Day” and the dramatic “We Were Wealth” before dropping you into the bleak and broken final transmission of “Doubt.” Or how The Knot worms its way through a nocturnal, haunted countryside to the pre-dawn drift of “Sight, Flight,” a song that is cripplingly beautiful and sad, where the climactic denouement is emotionally ambiguous enough to suggest walking back into the night as much as it does a glimmer of sunrise. Wye Oak’s music works within the haze of dreamlike-yet-awake logic, evoking an inner drift of imagery and emotions that’s hard to put in words. That’s always been the power of Wasner’s voice and melodies, or the power of how her guitar playing and Stack’s drumming will amble and then thrash with and off one another. In terms of album structure, Tween is a short but diverse work where disparate strands coil together, only to unravel, only to repeat the spiral. Meaning: It functions as an album the same way many of Wye Oak’s best songs impact the listener.

If the music itself is now defying that sort of linear motion, then it only makes sense that so too has Wye Oak’s narrative since Civilian. At one point, it was possible to imagine Wye Oak ascending to a position where, sure, they might not have been closing out Saturday night at the festival, but they’d have the fairly high, early-evening billing on one of the bigger stages. Now, it’s more plausible to imagine a career of left-turns and detours, wandering and exploratory moves that push deeper down the pathways their music always suggested. For those of us who are fans, that’s great. Tween is not a big statement, and Wye Oak might not be built for those kinds of albums. They may be too sweepingly melancholic but simultaneously floaty, too hard to wrap your thoughts around and make concrete. But it may also be the factor that continues to condemn them to a mid-level of indie notoriety where they are respected and passionately appreciated, but still sort of niche. With the two feeling liberated after Shriek, that might be totally OK. If Tween is any indication, they still have plenty of strangely beautiful music in them. They’re the sort of artist that, some years down the line, we’re going to look back and realize that they have a very impressive run of 10 diverse and enigmatic and rewarding albums. There’s a danger there, too, though. If the arc of Shriek exposed anything, it’s that we’re taking this band for granted right now. Playing like a gift to fans, Tween is likely too small a gesture to change course in that regard. Still: When I hear the wild ascension of “Watching The Waiting” at the end of Tween, I wonder what could be possible if Wye Oak were someday given a bigger stage for these songs.

Tween is out now via Merge.

Tags: Wye Oak