Halfway through this, my favourite record of 2018, there’s a song called ‘Symmetry’. It’s a euphoric thing, though its author created it out of anger – its enemy is black-and-white thinking, though it seems to tear to shreds a basic principal of the universe. “Order – do you know yourself / In the season of revealing? / Order is show-and-tell / Symmetry is so appealing.” With its rapid succession of images, at its velocity, this song rips through a cityscape full of neatness, boundaries, established narratives and division with the force of an electronically enhanced kaiju. I couldn’t quite believe what my headphones were telling me.
Here’s one of those established narratives: the 21st century’s electric guitar hero, Jenn Wasner, gains fans for expressive and muscular playing. Then vexes them cruelly on their LP Shriek by ditching rhythm guitars altogether in favour of synths. Billed as an amalgamation of these eras, The Louder I Call eyes up that lingering dualism – electronic instruments versus ‘real’ – and sees it as one of the edifices for the kaiju to crash through. It’s a kaleidoscope of widescreen keyboards, arpeggiators and drums, into which the axewoman injects high-voltage bliss at perfectly judged moments – the anticipation and release in ‘Lifer’ as her solo blazes in is, pretty much, music at its most vital.
‘Lifer’ gives a chance to focus on Wasner’s songwriting. Both wistful and concerned with the carpe-ing of diems, here she pinpoints the downside of adulting by announcing “I am not old, but I’ve become / Afraid of things I never was”. If living in fear is “a foolish disservice to the true essence of being alive” as she’s said in interview, the repeated line “Did you say that life could be better?” is so fallibly human in its ambivalence. And this sentiment is inextricable from its sonic setting – chillwave guitars aren’t the only thing reminiscent of Diana’s ‘Foreign Installation’ here, ‘Lifer’ also coming off like a 2010s torch song, the sad shapes of Wasner’s melody lines casting her as millennial Edith Piaf, or a dying Freddie Mercury. There’s a real richness to her voice that anchors every idea.
And what ideas there are – intros are often arpeggiated sequences that leave you uncertain of the song’s pulse, like in the title track. Rhythmically wrong-footing the listener, the mellow synth tones suggest Stranger Things 2 soundtrack material, and the cut-up breath samples give a sense of being pursued by something from the Upside Down. The effect of its vocal harmonizer is angelic, the sudden entry of rapid-fire hi-hats energising. The intense vocals of ‘Symmetry’, metallic, vacuum-packed and mixed hard by John Congleton, are beautiful like Black Cherry-era Goldfrapp and intense like a seer. ‘Say Hello’ considers how insignificant a human life seems in the world’s grand expanse, responding to that epiphany with the wonder of Kate Bush, and a mixolydian melody that pirouettes its way into your brain. ‘Over and Over’ has a verse similar to its predecessor and a bridge like a listing Syd Barrett song, saying “Here in the glow, I am immobile / I let it run over and over”. What a line for those falling asleep with laptops casting rectangles of light upon their unmade midnight beds.
‘My Signal’ introduces a new section of the band’s palette – a skittish string section – then considers the vast distances between loved ones, and is heartbreakingly gone in 96 seconds. The whole album lasts under 40 minutes, and its final quarter may be its best: if the above sounds like a cohesive whirlwind of styles, our closing triptych arrives effortlessly at maturity. ‘You of All People’ is about the importance of acknowledging forces bigger than oneself: “I get the feeling to look up / At something larger than myself” could refer to love or to faith equally. ‘Join’ is a beautifully expanded folk song about when ontological instability gets too much, human connection is often all you need. Finally, sounding like the band that for a decade now has been creating music of depth, a stately mid-tempo closer centres around the union of Wasner’s earthy electric sound and Andy Stack’s wonderful drumming, and tries to locate that which is true, inside oneself.
Reader, I had to buy it. On vinyl, coloured like the sand and sea to match its cover art. Merely looking at the title activated that harmonized choir of Wasners in my mind, the one from ‘The Louder I Call The Faster it Runs’. The delights, questions and shocks on this record leave no time to merely pine for the gut-shaking guitar catharsis of early records like The Knot. Why ask bands to repeat themselves when Wye Oak shows how much better it is when bands grow?