Review Summary: Massive, gut-spilling, and brave enough to sound different to their past selves and everyone else.
A few months ago, I encountered the drummer of a band called Shut Up Jackson
on the train after a Wil Wagner
solo show that the band had just opened. Every punk listener in Australia who keeps up with recent musical ongoings has an assumed admiration for the man at the helm of a newly revitalised punk scene in the city of Melbourne, positively in love with his big, sweaty, confidently masculine but simultaneously vulnerable stage presence. With a copy of Laika
in my hand, I was clearly no different, and it wasn’t long before the conversation turned to something or other about Wil. So I was somewhat taken aback when Jordan began to tell me about meeting Wil at the gig, tossing around words like “reserved” and “quiet”. My friend who was with me, whose favourite band is The Smith Street Band
, could only say “no” repeatedly in disbelief, as if his faith in Wil had been shaken. Me, however, I remember smiling and saying something like “yeah, I guess that makes sense.”
When you step back for a moment, outside of the intimacy that his music draws you into, Wil’s insecurities ring much clearer and his supposed real life “reservedness” becomes believable. Lyrics like “I was so scared to talk to your friends” and “not even 20 but I look 45” lay an unconfident character bare, but Wil does so confidently, because honesty is integral to the penetrating effect that The Smith Street Band’s music has. It is herein that Wil finds affirmation; that in spite of all his personal failures, he has found something in life that he can truly believe in: music, and everything that comes with it. You can see it whenever he’s on stage, his vitality carrying through the entire audience; his intense passion for music is unmistakable. So when I say that Wil’s music has never felt as triumphant and optimistic as on Throw Me in the River
, it’s a fairly grandiose statement. What Wil screams on “Something I Can Hold in My Hands” begins a journey that casts away his laments of dissatisfaction for the impossible self-assurance he finds in a life of doing what he loves: “for the first time in my life, I’m smiling when I wake”, “every inch of me is always itching unless I’m on a stage” and “I’ve never been as happy as here” are words that strike the listener within the first three minutes of the album, emboldened by the sound of honest-to-God happiness that defines the record all the way through to closer “I Love Life”. When I say “happiness” in regards to Throw Me in the River
, I’m talking about a very powerful happiness, the kind that lasts. Fulfillment, I guess you could call it. It threw me, though, that Wagner and co. could write something that sounds this joyful having just last year wrote lines like “I can’t take another late night phone call / from some other far-from-home hospital”; lines that could move you to tears.
Regardless, the notoriously melancholy foursome do “happiness” and “fulfillment” convincingly, loading Throw Me in the River
with exuberant choruses and climaxes to boot and bringing their established, vaguely-folk punk sound to full realization by improving on almost every aspect of it. That’s not to say that there aren’t moments of depression-inducing woe like “Calgary Girls” or the title track, but it’s hard to say that The Smith Street Band have ever sounded more uplifting than on this new album. Right from the spirited combo of the opening three tracks that cheers like a room full of drunk people or a football crowd, the entirety of Throw Me in the River
has the band sounding bigger and brighter than ever before: Hartney’s leads get more territory; Fitzy’s basslines are surprisingly active, adding a new dimension to grooves all over the record; Cowburn’s drumming provides the gravity that gives the album it’s rock heaviness; and even Wagner’s vocal melodies are expanded to cover way more ground than a few catchy, repetitive lines, in addition to sounding more passionate than ever. Fittingly, Jeff Rosenstock
--whose trademark honesty and thematic optimism Wil’s lyric writing somewhat resembles--is brought in on production and proceeds to meld the four members with a warm, rich overall tone that balances separation and blend in a way that can only be described as perfect cohesion.
The band can be heard rocking out over blasting, straightforward major key progressions all over the record, a transition not unlike that of their tour-mates The Menzingers
on their latest effort Rented World
. It is not, however, for the purpose of streamlining their sound as much as concentrating their individual efforts, and they’re better for it. In fact, no one moment on the album is truly “simple” because the album is constantly dynamic in its aversion of homogeneity and predictability. Each track on the album has been noted as a representation of “a different locale that the band has toured through in recent years”--Calgary, London, New York, Melbourne, and beyond--and so each track carries some sort of unique, specific quality that graces Throw Me in the River
with one surprise after another. It’s not just a product of new experiences but also new chemistry between the four members that allows Hartney, Fitzy and Cowburn to occupy more space in the band’s sound, something that undoubtedly strengthens the overall output and gives us more variance than Wil could have mustered unassisted. To put it simply: on every account, the former Wil Wagner & The Smith Street Band feels more like a collaborative effort than ever, and this latest release sounds amazingly powerful as a result.
The way that Throw Me in the River
ends is more thrilling than anyone could have hoped, and like the rest of the record, it’s quite unlike anything you’ve heard before. Wil and co. exit with the title track--a combination of low-key whispers, strings and wall-bashing climaxes--and “I Love Life”, a full-swing rocker in three parts: a blasting punk intro, a jam building momentum, and a chapter-closing final reflection from Wil, echoing the beginning of the album along with a gang of “woah-oh-ohs”. He asks “am I enough" / am I trying too much"” and makes life-affirming statements like “all I’ve ever wanted…” and “all I’ve ever needed…” before the song picks up and picks up before cutting to black. Needless to say, this ending sounds huge. Both lyrically and musically, it sounds like a truly rewarding moment for Wil, and it should be the same for the listener because this record gets better every time it is played; in all its intricacy, there's always more to appreciate. At its most effective, something that takes spins upon spins, the ending of Throw Me in the River
is one of those moments in music where the whole goddamn world comes down on you and you can’t help but smile, because this is what the best music sounds like. Massive and gut-spilling and brave enough to sound different to their past selves and everyone else, The Smith Street Band exceeds all expectation for the same reason as always: honesty, because what Throw Me in the River
gains from being so creatively broad and uncompromising is something raw, visceral, and almost real enough to hold in your hands.