Southeast Engine

A Wheel Within A Wheel

(Misra; 2007)

By Eric Sams | 3 February 2008

The onrush of guitars and strings at the opening of "Taking the Fall" is evidence of a teeth-baring Southeast Engine with whom we have not been acquainted. In those first few seconds a number of questions might reasonably occur to the listener. Are Southeast Engine hardening? Are they trading in Jeff Tweedy for Tim Kasher? And if they are changing, expanding, tweaking, how much different do they feel they need to be?

Coming To Terms With Gravity (2005) was, after all, a fairly unqualified success in its way. So a departure that may seem revitalizing to the musician, and titillating to the progressively-minded critic, often provide listeners and fans only with a nagging sense of unease. Art, especially music, is not a field in which the "if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it" axiom gets a whole lot of play. Then the tumbling beat finds footing, a piano line picks its way through the din and Adam Remnant's voice rises up as a reference point. What sounded aggressive seconds ago now sounds merely uptempo and the disarray of the opening burst seems a dream remembered.

And this is the story of A Wheel Within a Wheel: bold new influences fused so closely to the structure of these songs that, while each is facially striking during its sonic outthrust, by the end of any given song it has been reabsorbed and contextualized. These songs flit away from comfortable Americana and folk momentarily, with precision and intensity, but return to their base just as quickly. Some of these patches work better than others, but the bottom line is that Southeast Engine have made their most interesting album to date.

"We Have You Surrounded" is the exception that proves this rule. It's not often that you see three distinct movements in a two minute song, and in that sense this track utterly defies the description above. The only cohesion or context in this song is supplied by its nebulously thematic lyrics (it's, um, a celebration of free will?). Otherwise it may as well be three thirty-second previews of three different songs, but the intentional disjointedness proves that flash-of-influence technique elsewhere on the record is not merely the product of timidity or indecision. "We Have You Surrounded" is jarring, sure, but it's also the most memorable song on the album, and each of Wheel's standouts has an element of this in it.

Lyrically, there is a novel emotive undercurrent to Engine's trademark laborious academic phrasing. The implied message is far more compelling than the one expressed in Remnant's faded denim baritone. Where Gravity trenchantly advocated secular academic inquisitiveness, A Wheel Within a Wheel examines the toll that this can take on the inquisitor. Remnant's lyrics and delivery communicate how exhausting the incessant questioning of self-awareness can be, how insular is the practice of constant reflection, and how hard it can be to rebottle naivete once that skepticism has allowed the seeds of nihilism to take root.

Worse still, this philosophy by its very nature scoffs at the promise of answers, simple or otherwise, and so the questions continue ad infinitum. A wheel within a wheel can spin as fast as it wants, in any direction it wants, but it's never going to get any traction. The existential rubber will never meet the metaphysical road. And that's about as bleak an outlook as this writer's imagination can stretch to envelop.

These are, as Peter Hepburn has previously pointed out, clunky metaphors, but it becomes clear on this record that they are not merely inserted for style points, and that they are no less unwieldy for Remnant than for us. On "Ostrich" he throws up his hands: "From this sick, sad view / I want out / I'll give up on all / My faith in doubt." Small wonder, then, that "Oh God, Let Me Back In" is a plea for the security of certainty that religion brings. He doesn't even care anymore if it's a lie, he just wants to be sure of it, and a phrase from the chorus of the opening track reverberates, "We are meant to be / Deadlocked in security / Yeah, well, nothing means everything / And everything is tied to you and me."

So in every meaningful sense the primary question of change posed by the opening chords of the album can be answered in the affirmative, though the secondary question of degree proves a little more complex. The music has broadened, though only episodically, to encompass a variety of fresh textures. The lyrics, though syntactically similar, have deepened to encompass a bleak experiential counterpoint to their ideological secular skepticism. The transition, however, is unique enough in deployment that it can most accurately be described with an oxymoron: planned volatility. Make of it what you will.