(Jagjaguwar; 2005)

By Clayton Purdom | 27 July 2005

It seems that a lot of people are talking about Wilderness, but nobody’s talking about what they sound like. For those that don’t have the fiscal means to pick up every damn bit of New Music that the Fork deems among the Best, here’s the SparkNoted version: Wilderness make epic, bombastic Big Rock. The guitars veer between Edge-like caverns and jangly, soaring Coldplay highs. The drums patter and roll with the rhythmic complexity of Interpol, and the basslines sear and surge accordingly. Meanwhile, lead yelper James Johnson belts atonally, like a cross between a cartoon villain and David Byrne. The vocal lines push the limits of both Johnson’s vocal chords and the listener’s tolerance; if not exactly obnoxious, he certainly is overwhelming.

But this album has a definite allure, one that hooks the listener on the first run-through and promises something past those jarring vocals. Beneath its snaking and bellyaching clearly lies a musical and emotional depth of some significance, and any music fan could easily get drawn into the task of deciphering Wilderness, if only for the intellectual challenge of it.

What lurks beneath the surface of this album is an emotional core of striking vigor, and it’s exactly what we critics find lacking in so much modern music. When we rip on biters and shamefully admit that maybe all the good ideas really have been taken, it’s bands like Wilderness that remind us that the old forms can maintain relevance. Check album highlight “End of Freedom,” which opens with an elegiac guitar line that, with the help of an ever-building drum progression, gives the chants of that mournful title a heft that would seem impossible in light of its self-important profundity.

I mean, the “End of Freedom?” I’m as scared about the shape of the world as the next guy that can read a newspaper, but come on: these song titles are hyperbolic like a fundamentalist on Crossfire. After those epic, caterwauling guitars bring the bluster, Johnson could yelp almost anything and it’d sound like gospel. What he chooses to yelp is a crockpot of fire and brimstone nihilism, apolitical rhetoric and post-modern non-emoting. In other words, this album is (as CMG’s in-house wordsmith Chet Betz put it) a total drag. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not any good.

That being said, this album isn’t very good. The mythic importance hinted at on those first few listens quickly gives way to a vision of a fairly typical band that has fully absorbed the first two Interpol records and just made them a little more jangly. This is interesting for two reasons. The first is that Wilderness sound almost nothing like Joy Division, which means that someday soon Interpol may finally stop being labeled a Joy Division ripoff and start being recognized as the fully-formed band that they are, capable of influencing bands on their own terms. See “Your Hands” for evidence: the verses may rock a _Head on the Door_-era Cure downturn, but two minutes in everything drops out except for a single chiming guitar. As the drums and bass work their way back in, simple guitar lines emerge from the haze to contrast that simple chiming guitar. The entire song dilates in a manner practically invented and copyrighted by New York’s boys in black.

The second reason that this is interesting is that it almost completely undermines everything I’ve said and leaves this album as nothing more than, yes, a total drag. (I know this took awhile to get to, but so did my feelings on Wilderness.) No matter what all Johnson’s yelping’s getting at—and, from what I can pick out of the lyrics, it’s pretty enormous—the formulaic, exploitative nature of the music makes it all feel kinda icky. By backing superlative, extremist barking with anthemic, heart-rending music, this album essentially uses the oldest propaganda tactic in the book.

Which doesn’t mean this album is propaganda, but it does mean it’s cheap. I hate U2 as much as the next guy, but at least when they were making important-sounding records the entire world actually was listening. Wilderness, meanwhile, keep chiming in the darkness, belting maxims and winning scattered converts. But someone needs to tell them that just sounding important doesn’t mean they actually are important. As admirable as their political aspirations are, they’re the left-leaning indie rock fan’s Fox News Channel. They’ve just put Big Rock guitars in place of computer-generated eagles.