THERE’S THIS MOMENT on Wild Nothing’s 2013 EP Empty Estate, when you witness Jack Tatum transition almost invisibly from an unnerving Pinback impersonation into the airy, atmospheric choral breakdown he integrates so often into today’s version of Wild Nothing. This moment is 50 seconds into “Ocean Repeating (Big-eyed Girl)”, and as it turns out, it has come to represent something much grander of Tatum’s music: the element of sounding just a little bit better than the industry standard.
Let’s back up, because I want to clarify that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, Tatum has demonstrated a very particular bit of know-how in the process.
Stone-washed indie pop music exists inasmuch as it’s a clearly recognizable genre that doesn’t really have a name. Artists like the Maccabees and Klaxons have been capitalizing on the concept of progressive melody-driven pop with clubby undertones for almost a decade. By the time that concept reached the States, artists decided to take it down one of two paths. While Toro Y Moi, Washed Out and Small Black molded it into something new, Beach Fossils, Craft Spells and Wild Nothing hung back, took note of what worked and developed an auxiliary sound that blended all of it together. That’s kind of what makes Tatum’s music so captivating: He may not have an ear for what’ll be cool in five years, but he at least partially understands what’s cool right now.
It’s the crux of Wild Nothing’s appeal. Critics citing Tatum’s ineptitude in developing an original sound or deviating from the path paved by more exploratory bands don’t seem to grasp the difficulty of a good recipe. Practically from the word go, Wild Nothing has sounded pleasing. It hasn’t sounded new, it hasn’t necessarily sounded inventive, but it’s pretty much always sounded pleasing. He knows every single metric for every single ingredient, but seemingly only on a novice level. Are there moments where he forgets and accidentally borrows a little too closely from a peer? Absolutely. But then again, I’m pretty sure What For? was one of the worst albums of 2015, while Samantha was one of the best. Say this about Tatum: At least his music doesn’t cause anxiety attacks.
That’s kind of where we are with Life of Pause, Wild Nothing’s third LP. It likely won’t be topping anyone’s charts this year, but it’ll get spins from people who like smartly crafted, catchy indie background pop.
I actually don’t know that there’s a better way to decribe the way Life of Pause sounds holistically. Out the gate on album opener, “Reichpop”, Tatum fashions a mix of ambient melodic percussion, guitar-charged breakdowns and Bombay Bicycle Club-esque lyrical swooning. Structured with awkwardly sound integrity, both “Reichpop” and swoony ballad “A Woman’s Wisdom” establish an augmented take on Wild Nothing’s signature toothy melodic pop grin while refusing to explore any new ground. At several moments during each of them, you can feel the ground swelling beneath Tatum’s feet. He just never pays any attention to it.
Not until track five, anyway.
Surprisingly phenomenal pre-release single “Life of Pause” is one of the best songs I’ve heard this year. It’s a new sound, and it seems to be deliberately new. There’s an attention to production on “Life of Pause” that seems to put Wild Nothing’s entire identity into perspective. In verse, Tatum channels Mac DeMarco’s twisty minor-key inclusions. In chorus, he soars just slightly above an explosive, harlequin melody. Both vocally and instrumentally, Wild Nothing has never sounded better or more comfortable. It’s the biggest, boldest and most robust track Jack Tatum has ever recorded, and it’s a true snapshot of his potential as an artist.
After “Life of Pause” things tend to mellow out again in a relatively forgettable way. Tracks like “To Know You” and “TV Queen” deliver saccharine hooks and saturated guitar reminiscent of the better moments of 2012 LP Nocturne, while album closer “Love Underneath My Thumb” saunters with a Mystery Jets-esque gait.
There’s honestly no real low moment on Life of Pause, but then again, low moments were never this album’s problem. The problem is that there’s really only one high moment. On “Life of Pause”, Tatum has discovered something bold and unique, and should he choose to heed this compulsion (and the collective approval of those who have heard it), Wild Nothing might fuck around and do something huge and game-changing. Until then, he’ll continue to be a pleasant supplement once you’ve tired of So Long, See You Tomorrow. C PLUS