By Peter Hepburn | 13 July 2009
The Knot, the sophomore album from Baltimore duo Wye Oak, resides in a place rife with lust, betrayal, indecision, half-starts, and heartbreak. Assigning too much autobiographical weight would be lazy criticism, but it’s hard to spend a fair bit of time with this album and not come to the conclusion that it’s been a rough year for Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack. Regardless of whether it’s pulled from personal experience—and it would really be all the more impressive were it not—they’ve been able to craft an extraordinarily mature, sonically sophisticated, and self-assured album from what is all too often the domain of three-chord angst.
Even if it’s nothing too personal, this is undoubtedly an album about relationships coming apart. It opens with a warning of the difficult, fleeting nature of happiness, and closes with possessions being divided post-breakup. In between is a set that runs the emotional and musical gamut, the front end of which is loaded with an astounding pair of guitar driven rock songs. Laced with recriminations and resentment, “For Prayer” is a venomous notice of resignation writ in full-bodied, pealing guitar. “Take It In,” not only the best song here but easily one of the best of the year, is on a much angrier plane, with hints of betrayal and violence bolstered by the abbreviated solos that Wasner launches into repeatedly throughout. They follow these two with “Siamese,” a song so overwhelmingly pretty that it takes a few listens to really appreciate how dark it is (“‘Cause if you leave or I leave you / I lose my life and lose you too”).
The album doesn’t sustain the pace of the first four songs, but there’s still a handful of absolute stunners. The epic, gothic “Mary is Mary” is the record’s gorgeous centerpiece, one that I find more intriguing every time through. It’s also the counterpart to “Take It In,” a swirling, one-sided record of what happens after the violence hits (check the lyrical references that the two songs share). Coming toward the end of the album, “That I Do” returns the band to the guitar territory of those first few songs, and is Wasner’s most eloquent take on miscommunication and deceit, containing one of my favorite lines: “Better isn’t always doing well / I know because I’m better now myself.” Finally, the album closes with a breath of positively fresh air: “Sight, Flight” is no less dark (“So I’ll lick your head on the spit / And discover it’s my dinner”), but it’s wry and funny as well (“If you’re with me you’re with weed and TV / And the rest of our three guilty pleasures”). The latter half of the song explodes outward, a pretty violin line giving way to a suddenly huge drum sound, a mass of beautiful confusion that seems to indicate that titular knot finally and truly coming undone.
Compared to their debut, last year’s very good If Children, this album is markedly darker and more intense. If Children was sort of surreptitiously sinister; time spent with Wasner’s lyrics revealed that those chiming guitars and mannered drums belied a deeper discontent. On The Knot things are a fair bit more direct. There are still moments that’ll remind you of the guitar pop of the previous album (“Tattoo” especially), but Wasner is more willing to cut loose on guitar solos or play with an atonality that seems to reflect the dissatisfaction at the heart of so many of these songs. Stack’s production has evolved as well, and he’s working with a much fuller palette. The violins, horns, slide guitar, and banjo that crop up leave the sense of a much larger band, and never just of a two-piece going over the top.
Not everything connects, however. “Tattoo” is pretty, but doesn’t really go anywhere; the repetitive lull of “I Want for Nothing” falls flat; and I wish I could understand more than a handful of lyrics in “Talking About Money.” These are minor criticisms though, and I think they even help to cement the mood of the album somewhat. Perhaps I’m being too forgiving, but I find it hard not to be impressed by this band. The Knot may not be a full-out Great Album, but it does contain a lot of moments that are dangerously close, and taken as a whole it is surprisingly well-developed for a band still getting started. Batting two-for-two at this point, I’m hard pressed to think of a young American band whose prospects I’m more excited about.