opinion byAUSTIN REED
Picture this: You’re Jenn Wasner. By way of your prominently celebrated indie rock outfit Wye Oak, you have established a reputation as a musician who operates exclusively within the confines of the utterly visceral. Your lyrics move slowly and deliberately, and your melodic prowess suggests that you spent your formative years as Joni Mitchell’s personal assistant. You have cultivated notoriety as one of the most graceful songwriters in the industry. As such, much of your work is catchy—borderline radio-ready, even. But it’s never at the expense of the emotional depth that drives it forward.
So, here’s your play: After your 2011 LP Civilian received resounding acclimation for being sonically lush and exploratory, you and bandmate/utility man Andy Stack craft a follow-up LP that is completely void of guitar. On the surface, this isn’t exactly a groundbreaking move, but for you, it means abandoning an element of fairly considerable import. Civilian may have been progressive, but it was founded entirely upon your abilities as a guitarist. Nevertheless, this is your decision, and you’re committed because it’s a crucial move (and it was: As Wasner told SPIN earlier this year in reference to the acclaim of Civilian and the intensity of the supporting tour, “there was all this weird baggage associated with the guitar for me, and I couldn't get around that. It was a block. I had to sidestep the block in order to be able to make anything.”).
You have two options: You could sit on this information, never verifying any certain specifications about the format or the flavor to anyone who asks, except to say, “it’s going to be really fun and edgy and maybe a little different.” Nearly every detail you provide is merely a fragment of the truth, but all of this is deliberate, because by not relinquishing anything concrete, no ground rules are established. Listeners are free of any supposition because you have given them next-to nothing. Which is kind of cool.
Or, you get brazen with it. You open up—make it known that, for as uncharted as this territory may be, it was critical and you aren’t afraid. You embrace the departure you have made from the previous incarnation of Wye Oak, but you back it up by asserting your commitment to the songwriting that made you famous in the first place. In essence, you promote Wye Oak as a vehicle for constant creative change, and by the way, your songs are just as good as they’ve ever been. Which is really cool.
Jenn Wasner opted for the latter.
As expected, Shriek, Wye Oak’s newest full-length, is filled to the brim with surprise. Certain tracks gush open with no restraint, (“Glory,” “Logic of Color”) while others creep forward like there’s a sleeping baby in the room (“Shriek,” “I Know the Law”). Remarkably, the absence of guitar from the equation opens the door for Wasner and Stack to play in a much more delightfully ambiguous environment. “I Know the Law,” a track that fully exposes just how far they have come over the course of their eight-year tenure, ends with nearly 45 seconds of unrestrained distortion. It’s deliberately nonsensical, but this is a new Wye Oak. And this new Wye Oak has no problem making sense of it.
Shriek is a textbook example of how important track sequencing can be in the album creation process. Opener, “Before,” and title track, “Shriek,” function in tandem both as melodic pace cars and as barefaced declarations of Wye Oak’s intent. What better way to begin this totally daunting new direction than by qualifying just exactly how daunting it never really was? I got halfway through the track before recognizing the whole guitar-absence thing.
For as formidably strong as the two pre-released tracks, “The Tower,” and, “Glory,” may have been individually, they convey fresh new life as just a couple of parts to the whole. “Glory,” might have been one of the strongest tracks of the year already, but its weight is drastically magnified as one of Shriek’s primary components.
And so it goes with the rest of Shriek. “Sick Talk,” sheds interesting new light on Wasner’s refined lyrical glide. Stack runs a rhythmic clinic on “Paradise.” And “School of Eyes,” Shriek’s most severe example of Wye Oak’s transformation, is still intensely likable.
But the strongest moment of Shriek doesn’t arrive until the end, as album closer, “Logic of Color,” presents just exactly what Shriek means to Wasner and Stack. See, this whole process was hard. It had to be. But the trajectory of Wye Oak was never up to Wye Oak. Creativity goes places we never will it to go, but surrendering to the unpredictability is all it ever takes to experience it. The fact that “Logic of Color,” runs just short of three minutes only further solidifies Wasner and Stack as beautiful storytellers who, lest we forget, wrote their own recipe. They can add and subtract all they want, because the product will never not be theirs. B