Review Summary: more nebula than supernova
Much to the chagrin of my year eleven English teacher, ‘relatability’ is
a word, and it’s one of the most widely accepted currencies in the indie music world. With that in mind, it’s fitting, really, Runnner’s twitter account being runn by ‘runnnerbot’, a bot that reposts frontman Noah Weinman’s lyrics under the Runnner name. Fitting because, as a sort of back-handed compliment, many of Weinman’s lyrics do
read like your (least) favourite poster’s most relatable tweets – with lines about fucking up the rice, or fucking up your life, or fucking up the—well, you get it.
Regardless of their poetic quality, for many listeners, it’s the relatability
of Weinman’s lyrics that’ll determine their (the listener’s) like or dislike for this album. Which is not to say the album can, let alone should be reduced to its lyrics. Nor that indie listeners are wrong somehow to put so much stock in a piece of music’s relatability. There’s a lot more to this album with respect to its songwriting and production, both of which we’ll get to. And irrespective of how good an album is objectively, there’s no saving something you can’t connect to. But so much of Like Dying Stars, We’re Reaching Out
is centred around its lyrics, their relatability – these narratives about fucking up, this undefined sense of ennui – that it’s difficult to look past them and contend with the real strengths of the album (as mentioned, Weinman’s songwriting and production).
One of the album's most interesting songs, 'Raincoat', centres around the singer-narrator buying anti-dandruff shampoo at a pharmacy chain. There's this moreish banjo arpeggio which thankfully repeats itself throughout the song, and the song itself builds satisfyingly towards the gradual layering of tambourine and these trumpet-like vocal manipulations. But at just under two-and-a-half minutes, the song kind of just ends. This is, I imagine, part of the point. The dandruff narrative is perfectly representative of many of the album’s other narratives, and these narratives aren’t substanceless. Weinman himself has a lot of interesting things to say about them, pointing out that ‘a lot of the songs have this narrative arc of rising tension that just leads to me not saying or doing anything’, representing ‘a signal loss between thought and speech’.
This is true of ‘Raincoat’, in which the singer-narrator begins the song by declaring ‘I don’t wanna live like this forever’, but concludes with the realisation that he, like the song, isn’t really going anywhere. It’s also true of penultimate ‘NYE, a 46-second interlude in which the singer-narrator questions whether his staying in on New Year’s Eve to record music instead of seeing his friends is a misprioritisation of his time. But as charming as the latter is, sounding less like a song than an aural note to self, what’s thematically interesting doesn’t necessarily lead to anything musically interesting.
This is in stark contrast to an album like Skullcrusher's Quiet the Room
, which picked up on similar themes of inaction and the failure of speech, and in whose creation Weinman also played a role, albeit a lesser one. But whereas on that album, whose scope was admittedly much wider, frontwoman Helen Ballentine took this failure (of language) as an opportunity to represent inner conflict in a way that made full utility of her music’s sonic
qualities, Weinman too often relies on his words, and the listener’s ability to relate to them. How else to justify Weinman’s persistent falling back on simple folk structures which overemphasise storytelling, and underemphasise just how good Weinman is at creating these lush emo-folk soundscapes.
Pinegrove comparisons abound. But aside from the whole emo-folk thing – which is, by this point, very much a thing – there isn't a whole lot here that warrants Evan Hall as a reference point. As early as on 2019's Fan On
, Weinman established himself as an artist in his own right. Through his production, in particular, he’s succeeded in developing a sound of his own – one that revolves around, yes, the use of banjo, and true, these very typically emo-folk structures – but also, this magical ability to make even the smallest of compositions feel profound, like worlds in themselves. If anything, I'm reminded of Bon Iver's 22, A Million
, which juxtaposed the everyday with the sublime in a way that at the time felt novel.
But even this comparison fails to capture exactly what Weinman is capable of, as on ‘Runnning in Place at the Edge of the Map’. This song in particular gives a real weight to a lot of the feelings expressed elsewhere on the album – of being stuck in life, of wasting away – and expresses them in a way that is no clearer than on the album’s other songs, but far more evocative. The song has a simple structure, with the repetition of these heavy down strums and weepy slides. But the way it oscillates between soft and loud over its five-minute runntime beautifully captures the imagery of its title, and demonstrates how Weinman is able to transform even the simplest of folk tunes into moments of grand, life-affirming (or -negating) epiphany. Likewise, and on the other hand, closer ‘A Map for Your Birthday’ is as small and skittish as much of the rest of the album, but caps the album off effectively, really pulling off Weinman’s purpose in the way its climax trails off. Its moments like these – in which Weinman’s penchant for hyper-personal, almost diaristic lyrics comes into contact with his more immediate musical ability to make the unremarkable grand – that really holds Like Dying Stars, We’re Reaching Out
together, and gives me hope that Weinman’s next album will land less with a fizzle and more with an explosion.