Wolf Parade arrived like they were running for their lives. Their Isaac Brock-produced debut was a gritty, frantic affair — composed of fits and spurts of anxious energy and knotty instrumentation. The band’s perpendicular songwriters Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner matched this livewire music with narratives fixated on escape: from growing into your father, from the dismal future the world’s settling into, from the confines of context you imagine your romance transcending. These were big ideas intimately felt and expressed with an explosive force that set the stakes as life or death. The band came up amongst a wave of big-lunged, earnest idealists, yet their brand of anthem stood apart in its volatility; the kind that doesn’t reach for the stars so much as dig convulsively through the earth. As motivating as their music can be, Wolf Parade have never been interested in songs of hope — of waiting or praying for resolution. They’d rather sprint ahead even after there’s no clear direction to go, as if standing still would stop their heartbeat entirely. Fitting then that the band called it quits after the project began to feel complacent, as other avenues presented more thrilling frontiers for each member to chase.
Last January, Wolf Parade announced their return, and although the reboot has since been well underway, the response continues to be decidedly casual. In that regard, they’re sort of the anti-LCD Soundsystem, with little hubbub surrounding either their departure or resurrection despite the band having amassed their own cultural legacy amongst a remarkably mirrored timeline of releases. Rather than headline Coachella, Wolf Parade are back to the same old festival placements, playing the same-sized venues they did seven years ago.
Which is a shame, because if you saw the newly minted Wolf Parade during any of their shows last year you know they’re currently operating at an extremely high capacity, that they have the power to make a night out feel like a life-changing turning point. In that regard, they’re no different than LCD Soundsystem — I experience similar world-shifting thrills from hearing the “We are not at home!” refrain at the end of “Language City” as James Murphy’s trademarked “Where are your friends tonight?” If anything, Wolf Parade’s existential quotables have always felt personally more impactful. Murphy sings of age with resignation; Wolf Parade shout battle cries against it. So after a long absence, it’s reassuring to hear that survival spirit intact, for Krug to open the band’s long-awaited fourth studio album by advocating in his reverential sigh: “All right, let’s fight/ Let’s rage against the night.”
To be sure, the pressurized propulsion of Apologies To The Queen Mary is still retreating ever further in the rearview. Instead, Wolf Parade continue to refine their use of snaking, squiggling synth lines to create jingles that rev up to anthems as they did across their last two albums. But they’re still ferociously restless, conversing anxiety in ways that feel exploratory rather than repressively sedentary. As their Montreal-brethren Arcade Fire used to be, Wolf Parade are adept at instilling a sense of rebellious conviction in their listeners, though they do so with a skillful subtlety that strikes all the stronger. And like Boeckner’s buddies in Spoon, the band especially excels at crafting individually stunning moments buried within songs that often don’t reveal themselves until a fourth or fifth listen. Cry Cry Cry — which began streaming today — is packed to the brim with stray melodies locked between the foreground and background that brighten the surroundings without stealing attention from the main action. Every note is meticulously functional, but displayed with a style of craft that rings miraculous rather than mechanical.
The album begins with “Lazarus Online,” a menacingly jaunty piano-based number that’s theatrical, verbose, and joyfully melancholic — in other words, it’s a Krug classic. He’s still the more oblique songwriter — the Lennon to Boeckner’s McCartney — and he peppers his prose with deft, heavy-hearted turns of phrase like, “If we’re all just gonna fall like autumn leaves/ Into the ultimate season/ You’d rather miss him while you’re still alive.” If Krug’s the romantic poet of the pair, Boeckner’s the blue-collar idealist, and he follows “Lazarus Online” with his own bop littered with expected stereotypes. “You’re Dreaming” is ecstatically charming, with crisp sustained notes and a rippling rhythm, chock full of visceral imagery like “I got metal in my blood/ Dancing around to magnets” and “all these scenes of shattered glass/ All your systems in collapse/ On the screen they move so fast it’s just like life.”
Lyrically, much of the band’s focus across Cry Cry Cry skews more social than interpersonal, though always with an introspective eye. Songs like “Incantation” and “Artificial Life” find Boeckner chewing resilient smack talk in a manner that makes the case for Wolf Parade as the drummer boys of the revolution underway. “We carry on like we were sleeping,” he spits deridingly on the former, a rolling romp that turns slashing rocker, eventually settling in and out of a frenzied barrage of guitar solos, horn blares, and fervent keyboard-smashing. Meanwhile the latter is a synthetic fuzz-out against income inequality, with Boeckner roaring on how the proverbial they “got everything, but their everything was not for you and me/ We’re just part of the scenery.”
This kind of revolutionary-minded reactionism likely has its roots in the November that flipped most Americans’ sense of comfort-driven complacency, but thankfully the band hasn’t resorted to the sermonizing tropes that have grown stale amongst a recent wave of albums inspired by little else than “I think Trump is bad too.” When the topic is addressed, it’s often veiled behind ties to other tragedies or a part of a larger theme the song’s working through. The tumbling lead single “Valley Boy” is the prime example, finding Krug reaching out to Leonard Cohen, wondering if he left Earth amidst the hellfire we lit to finally become “the bird on that wire.” Elsewhere he recalls his first notice that “an evil genius was on the rise,” but juxtaposes it against Bowie’s death along an entire timeline of gradually internalized despair.
They afford themselves one song to more directly take potshots at the imbecile fascism we’ve become depressingly familiar with. Krug bares plenty of dejected venom on the cheekily-titled “King Of Piss And Paper,” a bleary, oozing album-closer that finds sardonic pleasure in dry vocal harmonies echoing the satisfyingly crass chorus. “The King is coming down the fucking hole,” Krug warns, begging the question: “How can we not sing about love?” In spite of the dire sentiments, nothing on Cry Cry Cry buckles under the weight of its subject matter; instead, every song is as sure-footed yet light on its toes as the majority of the band’s sprightly catalogue.
Wolf Parade are a band with a well-defined core sound: jangly, jagged power-pop with a dramatic punch amenable to a number of accompaniments — whether they be brass stabs, wavy arpeggiated synths, or jittery bells, all glued-together by Arlan Thompson’s underrated kit stomping. Accordingly, there’s plenty of spins on the formula across the album’s 11 tracks, from waltz-rock (“Flies On The Sun”) to choppy polka-punk (“Who Are Ya”). The gauzy “Am I An Alien Here” is a particular highlight, balancing its sad-sack narrative (“I had a dream you left me/ For someone who was mean to me/ So I cried and left to Mexico”) with shimmying strumming and moonlight-drenched guitar tones that become inflammatory on a moment’s notice.
While few bands excel as well at the kind of stuttering, sputtering three-minute pop song that are scattered throughout Cry Cry Cry, the album’s best moments are those where Wolf Parade push the form the furthest, like “Baby Blue”’s ramping spider-crawl outro that culminates in what sounds like a steel-cage riot set in a palace’s grand ballroom. It’s the first of two back-to-back six-minute monsters that form the album’s center. If “Baby Blue” is all Krug’s madcap strutting, “Weaponized” is a Boeckner-banger equal parts epic and eerie. It serves the album’s most satisfying jam-out when the song caves in on itself into a sunset-laden, slow-burning ballad at the halfway point. The pace maintains at a crawl and the guitars squirm in place, but Boeckner’s wide vocals exude a gravitational force that crests as the buzzsaw distortion burns out in cinematic fashion.
These peaks never reach quite as high as those of the band’s past (the fist-pumping bloodrush of “This Heart’s On Fire,” the controlled-burn riffage of “What Did My Lover Say?”), or arrive quite as unpredictably (“Cloud Shadow On The Mountain”’s Sabbath-level mid-section, the berserk grandiosity of “Kissing The Beehive”’s back-half), but as a holistic listen Cry Cry Cry comes across more cohesive than either Mount Zoomer or Expo ‘86. The band plays it sharper and straighter than when we last left them, emphasizing economy in their experimentation and a professionalism in their power. It’s a cleaner, clearer direction after those previous albums. Importantly, it feels like a sustainable start to something new, hopefully something that’s here to stay — something this band can hold onto now that they seem ready to charge against everything that at one time had them on the run.
Cry Cry Cry is out 10/6 via Sub Pop.