Champaign-Urbana's Headlights are masters of the soft sell. Their 2008 masterpiece, Some Racing, Some Stopping, found them moving away from the haze of feedback that defined their early albums, opting instead for a hushed, measured approach to songwriting, one that swaddled Tristan Wraight and Erin Fein's vocals in cotton and nestled them at the center of twinkling guitars and sighing synths. For the patient, the experiment worked: Some Racing was full of the kinds of… read more »
Champaign-Urbana's Headlights are masters of the soft sell. Their 2008 masterpiece, Some Racing, Some Stopping, found them moving away from the haze of feedback that defined their early albums, opting instead for a hushed, measured approach to songwriting, one that swaddled Tristan Wraight and Erin Fein's vocals in cotton and nestled them at the center of twinkling guitars and sighing synths. For the patient, the experiment worked: Some Racing was full of the kinds of songs that slowly worked their way into your bloodstream — tender, unassuming melodies that grew in resonance with time and attention.
Wildlife is, somehow, an even better record than its predecessor. It's quieter and stranger and sadder, a record about death and divorce and departures, and about the fact that we're all headed toward the same grim finale whether we like it or not. Unsurprisingly, it was recorded under fractious circumstances: the band finished the album with touring guitarist John Owen, decided they didn't like the results, parted with Owen and recorded it again, scaling it down even further.
If there are any pop hits — and that's debatable — they come early. "I Don't Mind at All" is a breathless chug driven by a gleaming guitar and understated melody. "Get Going" is probably the closest the group gets to repeating Some Racing's formula, Wraight crooning quietly over a gentle acoustic strum. But even that song is strangely deterministic: it's opening lyric is "Buildings come down and buildings go up."
If the front of Wildlife is all foreshadowing, it's the back half where Wilderness settles into its skin. The final five songs feel more like a single suite than isolate compositions, all of them reliant on a hazy of synths and _Fein's practically-whispered vocals. "Wisconsin Beaches" is a smokelike wisp of a song, barely-there guitar and Fein's melancholy singing. It's remarkable in its smallness.
But what's most alarming is how candid the band is about their conclusions. The record's thesis is delivered by Fein in its final third, over a bed of quietly vibrating guitar: "It seems decisions have such consequence," she sings, "the later that it gets/ and nobody's got your back/ not even your friends/ they can't — they're too busy growing old." That the song is called "Dead Ends" just underscores her point.
All of which makes Wlidlife sound like a downer — which, in a way, it is. But it's bigger and better than that: it's a band daring to face life's more unruly questions and to acknowledge that, in most cases, the answers are ugly. Near the end of the record they bring out a song called "We're All Animals," one in which Fein's vocal melody mimics opening track "Telephone"'s guitar line. In the latter it's strangely triumphant, but here Fein is subdued, singing, "black clouds cover your shoulders/ I know you believe when I told you/ that death will wait for you and me." As grim as it is, the song's bigger heartbreak comes in the chorus, because that's where Wraight and Fein ask the impossible. And they know it, but that doesn't stop them from breathing in deep, closing their eyes and asking it anyway. Summoning whatever belief in God and love and goodwill and miracles they still have left, in the final moments of a record about loss, they clasp hands and sing their single hopeful request:
"Let's go back and try this again."