Review Summary: Wild Nothing comes home.
Jack Tatum emerged with a solid debut in 2010’s Gemini, but it wasn’t until Nocturne came out two years later than Wild Nothing really made a believer of me. Filled with a lush, immersive atmosphere containing one outstanding dream pop composition after the next, it was easily one of the best indie rock releases of the year. Then, Empty Estate proved he wasn’t out of ideas yet, with impressionistic and sometimes experimental pop pointing at ever-increasing creative ambition.
The strong point of Wild Nothing’s music has always been based around stellar interplay between guitar, bass, and vocals, with each contributing memorable but never overpowering melodies that shift in and out of focus. Yet 2016’s Life Of Pause was that it seemed to almost totally abandon this dynamic, with often superfluous guitar parts and the influence of new wave and jangle pop replaced with smoky 60s soul and R&B sounds. It also wasn’t terribly consistent, with some of its best songs (“Japanese Alice”, “Reichpop”) sounding completely out of place with the rest. It’s hard to blame Tatum for going a different direction instead of repeating himself ad nauseam, but the result was a merely okay album that didn’t hit the heights of its predecessors.
It seems like Tatum and his band have recognized that Life Of Pause wasn’t exactly a step in the right direction, because fourth LP Indigo almost completely sidesteps it and marks an enthusiastic return to the style of songwriting that the band does so well, a proper followup to Nocturne and Empty Estate.
Indigo embraces a slick, 80s-inspired studio production style that sounds more polished than any of their previous albums, but it suits the music well, unlike the warm 60s sound of Life Of Pause; and in all honesty, it’s not *that* different from Nocturne. “Letting Go” makes it clear that guitars have once again regained their rightful role in Wild Nothing’s sound, while the sweeping keyboards sound more immersive than anything the band has done since 2013. The huge melodies of songs like this one and “Flawed Translation” take what Tatum does best and makes it better. While it’s a return to form, Indigo doesn’t sound like Wild Nothing consciously trying to re-create the Nocturne sound, striking a nice balance between the new and the familiar.
Maybe the best moments are those where Indigo embraces the more off-kilter side of their previous work, exemplified by songs like “Dancing Shell” and “The Blue Dress.” “Canyon On Fire” is one of the best cuts of the album, with herky-jerky guitar riffs and cynicism of the LA lifestyle a prelude to its fantastic, swirling bridge. It’s the moment where Wild Nothing finds the perfect balance between winking self-awareness and earnest emotion. Songs like “Oscillation,” with its rapid acoustic strumming and saxophone accents, and “Wheel Of Misfortune” rhyme with the Nocturne blueprint but avoid repeating it. “Through Windows” is even a better take on the soul inflections of Life Of Pause, which works much better in a one-song dosage than three-quarters of a record.
Indigo’s lyricism is more direct and in-the-moment than its predecessors, but it’s really a mistake to read too much into it, or Tatum’s thoughts about the digital age and domestic stability. As with other Wild Nothing albums (well, at least those not called Life Of Pause), the lyrics aren’t really the point, and serve as an accent on the dreamlike atmosphere Tatum tries to create. There is a sense that, similar to this album’s predecessor, Tatum’s limitations as a frontman are a bit more evident, with his vocals higher in the mix, and a narrowed range: he never sounds as dreamy as on “Drifter,” nor as Ian Curtis-like as in “The Witching Hour,” but perhaps he’s simply found a place where he’s comfortable as a frontman.
Of course, whether being comfortable is really good for Tatum’s music or exposes fundamental weaknesses will color whether the listener finds Indigo an excellent record or merely okay. Perhaps the more important question is which Wild Nothing album is already your favorite? If it’s Nocturne, you should be pleased. If it’s Gemini, opinions will vary.