The Anniversary

Civilian Turns 10

In the middle of the ’00s, something was happening in Baltimore. While the music press would soon focus on the rise of Brooklyn’s music scene as the center of an ascendant new generation of indie artists, not everything revolved around New York. In Maryland, a fertile scene was developing, one that’d give us a host of artists on their own wavelengths, moving in and out of the mainstream indie conversation at will. Early success stories included Beach House remaking shoegaze and dream-pop for a new era, and Animal Collective’s constant shape-shifting. Soon the shadowy krautrock tinges of Lower Dens, the earnest and anthemic synth-pop of Future Islands, the frantic and endearing noise-blasts of Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, and the electronic voyages of Dan Deacon would all follow. Then there was Wye Oak, a young duo who would quietly (and sometimes not-so-quietly) become one of the great bands of their era.

Even before Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack upended and then blurred the framework of what Wye Oak was or could be, they were hard to place. None of those Baltimore acts shared that much in terms of common musical DNA, and Wye Oak’s early albums If Children and The Knot often garnered some kind of vague “21st century folk” descriptor. Grunge and shoegaze were just starting to come back into vogue then, and thanks to Wye Oak’s penchant for fiery, abrupt soft-loud dynamic shifts and haunting, dreamlike melodies, you could hear some of that in their music; they were compared to artists like Neil Young, Dinosaur Jr., and restless indie stalwarts Yo La Tengo. All of which is to say: Wye Oak’s music seemed to play with classicist notions of rock (or at least indie rock), but existed in an elusive headspace. Something about them always made them alluring in a way that so much late ’00s indie just wasn’t. It was weird and beautiful, broken-down yet immaculate, an iteration of indie both swampy and atmospheric. It sounded practically mystic compared to the chirpiness and baroque affectations coming out of Brooklyn at the time.

That first phase of Wye Oak culminated in the beloved Civilian, released 10 years ago today. The album was a minor apotheosis, the moment when Wasner and Stack built upon and refined strains of their preceding music but also came into their own, eliciting critical acclaim along the way. Back then, Civilian was actually regarded as quite a change in Wye Oak’s sound, a mellower and subtler evolution from the eruptions associated with them to that point. From what we know now, this was actually an end destination for one form of Wye Oak, but at the time it seemed like they had just arrived, that the searching qualities of their early albums had not been expunged from their writing but had led to a resounding, transfixing statement.

The “rock is dead/rock is back” cycle has long been a worn-out trope, and we’ve seen plenty instances of them in the past decade or two. When Civilian came out and brought Wye Oak greater notoriety, this was part of the story: Wye Oak were, in the year of our lord 2011, one of the rare bands making guitar-based music that felt as if it had some new spirit moving through it. One that wasn’t doggedly exhuming bygone styles in a retro pastiche, but was conjuring something new from ashes and earth and, yes, the building blocks of rock music. As that narrative coalesced around Wye Oak, people spent an awful lot of time fixating on Wasner as a female vocalist/guitarist, an angle that was already cringe-inducing then and, presumably, wouldn’t get quite so far today.

Unfortunate framing mechanisms aside, Wasner had more than a rightful claim to being a new indie guitar hero. Civilian bore evidence of that throughout. The rolling, liquid guitar lines of “Two Small Deaths” set the tone for Civilian‘s world. Songs like “Holy Holy” and “Dogs Eyes” and “Plains” still played with Wye Oak’s sense of dynamics, Wasner crafting one nimble or patient guitar line before setting everything aflame with guttural-then-roaring distortion. In “Civilian,” an autumnal tumble gives way to volcanic release. In “Hot As Day” her guitars shimmer like desert mirages. In “We Were Wealth” they become vapors, a mist from which she and Stack coaxed the song’s reverberating climax. And Stack was right there with her throughout, providing percussion that could be thunderous or restrained as well as synths that filled out the immersive sound Civilian created.

All of this existed in a twilit, liminal space that defined Civilian — and much of Wye Oak’s music otherwise. The way Wasner works her way around words has always given Wye Oak songs a certain yearning, and Civilian and its successors alike manage to sit in an undefined space between melancholy and wonder. The same way that Civilian marked both growth and new beginnings musically, the themes of the album were often rooted in certain chapters of life passing. Wasner and Stack were teenagers when they began playing together, and they were still only around 24 when Civilian arrived. That’s a specific point, when you aren’t all that far into adulthood but you’ve lived enough to life to realize you can’t — or shouldn’t — carry everything from your past with you. You need to abandon some facets of yourself and embrace others. To that end, Wasner once described the album as reflecting on “aloneness (the positive kind), loneliness (the horrible kind), moving on, and letting go (of people, places, and things).”

Wasner explored those ideas under a word that was as evocative as it was empty, waiting to be filled with meaning. “Civilian” seemed like it could communicate so much in the context of the album, at the same time that it bore no clear connection to these songs. Some of that was intentional. As Wasner told The Huffington Post back then:

I love Civilian because it’s obviously such an emotional record, but “civilian” is such a cold and detached and harsh-sounding word. It represents a certain distance, a clinical distance that I take when I step back and look at these songs, or when I was making the record. But also, I like that it is both an inclusive and exclusive word. I like that, in and of itself, it means someone who is not a member of the military, but it also essentially encompasses almost everyone. The record in a lot of ways is about yearning for that normal life that most people think is possible, but very few people actually have. There is this concept of normalcy that I think is a part of our collective consciousness, but isn’t really real, and no one ever really reaches it, and everyone strives for it.

In the years since, “Civilian” has lived on as one of Wye Oak’s finest songs. It’s the stormy, cleansing core of the album, as well as the song that captures the passages and reckonings Wasner was thinking about. In its most memorable lyric, Wasner talks about keeping her baby teeth in her bedside table — a slightly tongue-in-cheek reference to real-life packrat tendencies, but one that gets magnified into some horror movie heirloom in the context of “Civilian.” It’s nostalgic, but it’s also consumed with loss and the struggle to get to a place where you can let the past go. These were young people processing the change that starts to sneak up on you in great big tidal waves as you enter your twenties, when life seems like it’s settling into patterns and then takes one left turn after another.

So much of Civilian wades and weaves through that, fittingly spectral music for sifting through the fog of memory and identity. But on “Civilian” they rush and (instrumentally) scream through it instead. A song meditating on what we carry with us through our lives goes and burns all remnants of that away, leaving only a wreckage to be surveyed and questions of what can be built out from it. No other moment on the album quite captures this essence: Civilian was, to many of us, the sound of Wye Oak greeting us as they were always meant to be, while simultaneously untangling that identity in real time.

Civilian was a big breakthrough, but Civilian also almost killed Wye Oak. There’s “touring relentlessly” and then there’s what Wye Oak did after Civilian. After the fact, they estimated they played something like 350 shows in two years, maybe more — at least a gig every other day. By the end, they were spiritually and physically exhausted. Not only were they depleted from so much time on the road, they were creatively spent. Wasner’s spoken about how she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to write again. The only thing they could do was break Wye Oak apart, reimagine it, start over.

When Shriek arrived in 2014, one of the only interesting guitar bands of their time had now forsaken the guitar. Some fans got really stuck on that. Who knows whether that’s a commentary on just how far away 2011 is or just how much people fell in love with Wye Oak’s original sound, but anecdotally, you could hear people wishing they’d return to it. And, indeed, it’s always thrilling when Wasner’s writing takes her back to that place, like on the one-off Wye Oak single “Fortune” or, just recently, in a more mature and weathered way on the new Flock Of Dimes song “Price Of Blue.” But Wye Oak weren’t going to be that kind of band. For years now, Wasner and Stack have talked about how there had to be hard reset, a statement record that allowed Wye Oak to become whatever they wanted or needed it to be. Wye Oak have since mutated, twisted, reframed that initial three-album arc as one small, linear chapter in a career that wouldn’t settle in one place. In that sense, Civilian was the death of Wye Oak as we once knew them.

It had to be that way. Civilian was the final purge, the final catharsis, that all their early years had been leading up to. There was nowhere else to take this sound. Nothing’s ever solved in their music, but here, in some way, they reached as much of a conclusion as could ever be offered by the next set of ellipses. Civilian remains a high watermark in Wye Oak’s career, and maybe it did something for Wasner and Stack as individuals, too. As these songs grappled with leaving things behind, so too would the duo soon leave this phase of Wye Oak behind; that part of their work was done. Having perfectly captured a hazy, winding portrait of messy human emotions, it was time to move on. That makes Civilian an album of hellos and goodbyes at the same time, introducing us to everything Wye Oak could be, before setting the stage for the other Wye Oaks we’d soon get to know, and the all the others we’ve still yet to meet.

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