The 1980s are not always heralded as a great decade for music, but they were nevertheless a foundational period for bands that were reinterpreting pop. Groups like The Smiths and Primal Scream, who deftly fused pop melodies with a DIY, indie aesthetic, made tunes that were both natural outgrowths of the past and inspired portents of the future. Indeed, this was the beginning of a rich tradition of pop revisionists. Jack Tatum, the pop enthusiast behind Wild Nothing, aims to be included as a member of that canon. He has said that his music is “my sense of what pop music used to be or even what pop music would be in my ideal world.” With this vision in mind, Tatum released 2010′s Gemini and quickly established himself as an adept and thoughtful songwriter. The mixture of detached vocals, washed out synths, and shimmering guitar melodies was potent; however, it was also evident that Tatum was still exploring exactly what kind of sound he wanted to create. Nocturne is the confident result of that exploration.
Refined and polished, Nocturne is a carefully constructed patchwork of hazy synths, power-pop rhythms, and glistening guitar work. This time around, Tatum was more interested in making a cohesive statement than he was in surprising the listener. Some will find this disheartening but others will get immediately lost in the swirl of Nocturne’s sound and find comfort in its graceful continuity. Those that do find Wild Nothing enchanting likely have a penchant C86 descendants; but that is not to say that Tatum’s sound is only about nostalgia. Nocturne has moments that recall Beach Fossils, Phoenix, The Shins, DIIV, Twin Sister, Chromatics and a number of others. As much as Tatum might want his sound to be associated with some forgotten ideal that doesn’t obscure that fact that he is but one of many contemporary artists morphing pop in their own excellent way.
The album opener, “Shadow,” is irresistible, kicking things off with a driving hook and a fuzzy, celestial atmosphere. The bass line cuts in and out of the synths and Tatum’s delicate voice washes over the arrangement. After the first verse, the strings take center stage and it is clear that Nocturne will be Tatum’s most mature affair yet. “Shadow,” while not exactly boisterous, is nevertheless one of the more upbeat tracks on the album. “Midnight Song” has some touches of brightness but it more or less serves to establish the pleasing, ponderous tone that imbues the rest of the album. On the eponymous track, one can see where the title of the album comes from (nocturnes are typically songs inspired by the night). “Nocturne” feels like the reflection of bright lights in a puddle on a dark street. Like much of the album, its central themes are the joys and perils of love, which for many are intricately linked with the mystery and excitement of nighttime. It’s a powerful thematic combination, but I can’t help but wish Tatum found some other ways to explore his relationship with night. Almost every song on Nocturne deals with Tatum’s feelings about a significant other. These are important feelings for him, to be sure, but interpreting those feelings from a wider range of perspectives would have made for a more diverse listening experience.
Nocturne is less reliant on individual standouts than its predecessor but that doesn’t mean that Tatum’s songwriting is any less impressive. His melodies are immediately infectious and their elegance suggests a writer far more seasoned than Tatum. “Only Heather” reinforces its romantic lyrics with a lovely and hypnotic guitar riff. Similarly, “Disappear Always” puts one into a dream state (and sometimes into a sleep state as I can personally attest to). That is not to say it is boring, but rather that it sets the mind adrift and encourages that pleasing feeling where everything seems to be a little more special. “Paradise” breaks the traditional songwriting framework only slightly but it is enough to make it one of the more effectively arranged tracks on the record. During the middle of the song the drums cut out and an extended interlude begins to take shape. The melody ebbs and flows and as the sound begins to build the song’s energy is amplified. Then the drums finally do drop and there is an emotional element to the song that was never there before. A few more moments like this would have served the album well.
Nocturne goes to great lengths to distill and streamline its sound. This was perhaps inevitable, given Tatum’s desire to make an aesthetic statement, but it was not necessarily the right choice. A languid sound, such as Nocturne‘s, often works best when accompanied by at least some semblance of a foil. Destroyer’s meandering melodies on Kaputt were made more affecting by their contrast with Bejar’s obscure and complex lyrical constructions. In the same way, Lower Dens splice their hypnotic tracks with unique noise explorations that both inform and complicate their more traditional song structures. Throughout much of Nocturne, however, everything about the sound is dreamy and searching. This homogeneous approach leads to an all around gorgeous album; but it also sacrifices the kind of tension and complexity that makes a good album great.
Wild Nothing began as Jack Tatum’s bedroom experiment; and while it has grown in scope one still gets the sense that the band’s sound is an outgrowth of Tatum’s psyche. That makes for some captivating moments but it also limits Nocturne‘s depth, both thematically and sonically. Tatum might have found his perfect sound but, as the great Hamilton Leithauser recently noted, “nobody loves perfection.” [B]