Review Summary: [1989-2023] Worth the Wait
The world spin moves, seasons dart past, and the long-awaited Wrens Meadowlands
follow-up album shall never come to be. Oh, horror - this is NOT what you had planned.
A change of perspective: we are, in theory, getting two for one here. Kevin Whelan & co’s 2021 album Observatory
fulfilled one half of the prophecy, reworking his tracks from LP4 into a polished full-length. It was good! Certainly, it lacked the Wrens homey magic, but as far as comebacks go and given the circumstances, it was pleasant, ballad-led indie pop. Second, the artist formerly known as “the only full time Wren” Charles Bissell has promised an album of his LP4 material (and others) for release in early 2024 under the moniker ‘Car Colors’. Fans know to take these announcements with a hefty pinch of salt (see 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017-19, 2020, so on and so forth.) But, this time, just maybe, it could be the real deal. Finally, finally, there is music. Not just that, but if first single Old Death is a sign of things to come then Car Colors debut may be the closest that we get to reaching the heights of 2003’s The Meadowlands
To articulate what made The Meadowlands
so special is a difficult task. A cop out response would be that it just had that feel
. But it does! It felt and sounded like an album that defied all odds to be here. Like a well-laboured spider web that could break apart at any moment yet refused to do so. Its personable, familiar fuzz and ruffled lo-fi charm sounded more like an old friend than an album, and over time this becomes a more and more suitable descriptor. Lyrically, it was such: exhausted thirty-somethings reckoning with fear of failure, or success, unrecognised potential, a life path unforeseen and not necessarily welcomed. Despite this, and crucially for the reverence it inspired, for such a genuine, defeated album, it sounded euphoric and alive, urgent as if it really was their last chance to make a defining opus. To that extent, The Meadowlands
was a success. In a ton of other metrics (fame / fiscal), it was not.
So, how is our exhausted narrator faring twenty years on? Enter Old Death from the left. At first, it’s easy to get lost within rapidly changing melodies, muddied production, buried vocals, indiscernible lyrics. Over seven minutes we have six (or so) non-repeating sections, a battle of jagged guitars and triumphant horns crashing in and out (impressively seamlessly, we find in time), and no clear chorus. The closest we get to a tangible peak comes when Charles' distinct, well-missed, vocals let out a battle-cry: “no! no! No! no! no! no! no!... Not all of us. singing, "up! up! up! up! up! up! Get up!”
On either side, the song rushes in waves. Old Death begins in immediate thundering crashes, in a pace and urgency reflective of a desire, finally, to release yourself from obsessive tinkering, and ends in tepid undertow, a whispered request. With time, as with all great Wrens songs, it unravels, reveals itself. Instead of being a song with no hook, Old Death is a song with all hook; little hints at repeating melodies and ideas, microcosmic crescendos, desperate inflections (most perfect in the call-back line “this record started in regrets”
); The Meadowlands
Happy is interpolated in a magnificent tribute apt within the songs motif. It’s dizzying, chaotic, and marvellous.
I am certain Old Death has been through the ringer in terms of construction, destruction, reconstruction, redestruction, rereconstruction, reredestr -- In Bissell’s words, rooms have been painted, paint scraped away, and re-painted “until it feels liveable”. Liveable it is. Less an idyllic image of the family home, and more the real, complicated, well-worn architecture which houses one’s life. This, still, is warm. Old Death sounds laboured, but not to a fault. There are a bajillion ideas: the lyrics, for one, are stream-of-consciousness in their delivery and yet evidently meticulously thought out in their substance. Channelling a cacophony of ideas into an earworm melody was always Bissell’s forte. The Wrens used to joke that they sounded like a cover band of themselves because it was impossible to play the songs live in the same way as they appeared on the albums, with all their laborious tinkering, excess layering, and guitar effects which barely sounded close to the host instrument. Yet it worked. It felt alive. Each obsessive mending was impressively manoeuvred in melodic glory. This is the same here. Old Death brims with life as if it were truly a miraculous work of stream-of-consciousness, despite the obvious labour (implicit and explicit) that has gone into it.
If Charles Bissell was always so good at squeezing an entire relationship into a song (see: 13 months in 6 minutes, Janes Fakes a Hug etc.) then Old Death takes this up a notch, squeezing an entire life into seven minutes. Of the track, Bissell writes it’s “about time, how one chooses to spend it, what these choices cost”. Time spent is hard to reckon with. Eighteen years labouring over an album that is only sort-of to be is really hard to reckon with. Each journey is different, this one more than most, but coming to terms with (or struggling to come to terms with) paths one has taken is universal. Bissell is as masterful as ever at drawing universal anxiety and experience within his proper nouns. Old Death plays with time here through parenthesis which tethers each line to a year, each minute to a thought in time. A familiar wind persists, transcends. A newspaper headline from 1901 marked “Wind Runs Sindia aground here”
, a reference to a ship crashed from heavy winds. Elsewhere in time, this same wind wraps around Bissell's old home, hugs still his front garden, and will continue thrashing long after these are no more. Time’s arrow points forward only in formal ageing. Events, moments and memories are intangible, impermanent and yet constant – often appearing uncontrollably, like the wind itself. Familiar wind traverses all eras (marked here by typography, family and parentheses). All eras must traverse one constant, death. Time hastens. Life firsts become less exciting but not less (“first desk, first pet, first not a band-at-home”
). Goals change; here from personal attempts to find answers or meaning, yet ending in a concession of reality. Perhaps life is no more than passing the buck to those who come after you: “the stopwatch that started in years ends in days / no one moment replays / and the goals have been moved anyway / to spend it all working mics more and more seems a waste / A baton-pass to kids’ the best way that it’s faced / And besides all the work gets erased.”
Old Death is an incredible statement. It provides ample explanation for where Bissell has been, dissatisfaction personified in the obsessive perfectionism of attempting to furnish a successor worthy of The Meadowlands
(“and if ten years pulling at the oar’s been for eight carols to rowing”
). General dissatisfaction was no small motif within that album itself, a lifetime's dedication to art at the expense of one’s life itself has been a recurring theme throughout. In this unattainable quest for perfection we saw the loss of an album, the split of a band, and likely also the fun of making music. That all being said, as far as comeback singles go, with the impossible weight of the work that has gone into a follow up, with Old Death we’re left to think that perhaps twenty years was worth the wait... Maybe perfect is
better than done.
Oh yeah, the two B-sides are superb also.