I never actually got around to posting my write-up for my year-end album list. I suppose I still could, but now that we’re on the eve of March it would feel a bit silly.
In 2010 I refused to declare a single favorite album, but I did select a top five (looking back now it would be revised to six). For 2011 (I almost typed “this year”) that number was three; Destroyer’s Kaputt, EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints, and La Dispute’s Wildlife.
Since I didn’t get to gush over these in that year end post—well I did, but no one saw it, I’m just going to do so here. But I’m not going to gush over all of them. Rather, I’m going to gush over the one that is never actually going to get the recognition it deserves.
Dan Bejar (Destroyer, among other things) is and has been a well respected musician in the indie community for something like fifteen years now. That he could put out a masterful album surprised no one, and furthermore it would have no trouble getting attention, mass and critical. EMA doesn’t have the same pedigree, but Erika Anderson’s old project Gowns was developing a following and the sound and attitude of EMA build directly from that, so Past Life enjoyed a sort of breakout success.
La Dispute, on the other hand, is in an odd position. They perform in a style of music that hasn’t been properly respected since the late 90’s, before it was hijacked by bands appealing directly to dramatized teen angst and became what we know today as Emo. That alone is enough for most people to dismiss it off hand, and even if you try to attach the more prestigious sounding “Post-hardcore” label to the project, the whiny quality of Jordan Dreyer’s voice isn’t doing much for their image.
But La Dispute are in no way like their emo peers. In many ways, they’re not even like 90’s post hardcore. They are however the closest thing I’ve ever heard to the sound of mewithoutYou’s first record, so perhaps that is the best reference point. You see, what separates this band, at least on this recording, from the majority of the acts working in this style is quite simply their attitude. Wildlife is practically a concept album, following a journey of self discovery for the narrator, who is “writing” it, as we are told in the opening song. He examines modern American society from a very personal, individualized lens. However, nothing about the record is, at any point, judgemental. It’s actually rather remarkable just how open minded it remains through the course of all 14 songs—nowhere does the bias of the narrator, and by extension the band, show through in the stories told by the lyrics. No one is criticized, no viewpoint is criticized, everything is merely considered. A Departure
You see, the narrator is at a troubling stage of his life, where his internalized viewpoints seem to be at odds with the world around him, and consequently there is a kind of emotional pain that he feels. The journey of the album is his attempt to reconcile his own worldview with the actual world around him, and he does this by collecting stories.
As a brief aside, it really helps that the songwriting here is absolutely top notch. I’ll draw a mewithoutYou comparison again. It’s less poetic than Weiss’s lyrics, but significantly more poetic than most songwriting in this or any genre. There’s a stream of consciousness sense about it (the fact that much of the vocal delivery is spoken word enhances this), as if the narrator isn’t taking the time to make his thoughts into pretty metaphors and rhyme patterns, he’s writing them down as fast as they come, but they’re being filtered through a poet’s lens nonetheless:“Often later when I’m sleeping you show up in my dreams.
Just doing simple things, like buying groceries.
And when I wake up I could swear you must’ve just left me
Like you got up to make breakfast or maybe just to get dressed.
But the truth is, you were never there. You won’t ever be.
Sometimes I think I’m not either so what do I do”
The big hitter here is King Park. King Park
It’s emotionally intense and deals with a story that most everyone, at least in the US, can relate to—witnessing a news report about a fatal child shooting. And King Park is certainly the song that got me interested in the album in the first place, however, it’s not the one that stood out to me most after listening.
The song that hit me the hardest was track 11, I See Everything. And it wasn’t because it struck a relational chord. No, the emotion that it made me feel was revulsion. It was horrific. Not the song, but the story. Or more specifically, the attitudes of the characters in the story. I See Everything is a frame story with a high school student listening to an anecdote from his teacher. She tells the story of her family dealing with her seven year old child’s struggle with cancer:“Only 7, standing face to face with death. He said it's easy to
Find people who have suffered worse than him. ‘Like Jesus, suffered worse
The child dies, slowly and painfully, and the family writes it off as the will of God and carries on."We buried our son today, our youngest child, and while his death was ugly we must not let it scare us from God."
I was stunned. Not because I am unfamiliar with this viewpoint, I’ve been immersed in it for all 21 years of my deeply southern Baptist existence. That people believe God is the cause of all of their misfortune, and for this reason they should rejoice over it instead is something I’ve come to terms with, but never been terribly fond of. But when I was looking at it this way, with context through this song, it just seemed so callous and terrible. I’m fairly certain that I stopped what I was doing the first time I heard the song, and then turned the track back to the start and started to read along with the lyrics online.
My interpretation, however, was wrong. And I wouldn’t realize it until I started to grasp the tone of the album, that it wasn’t aggressive or judgemental, it was open and understanding.
The thing that lead to my real understanding of the Wildlife was probably my original favorite song, track 3: St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church Blues. St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church Blues
In this song, the narrator observes a dilapidated church, and even though he can’t personally comprehend a religious mindset, he considers how such a thing might benefit its followers. I was very impressed that this person, who is more than likely an atheist, was finding more value than I, a religious person, tend to see most of the time in the beliefs and practices of fundamentalists:“That stained-glass window sits untouched amongst the brickwork worn,
A symbol of the beauty only perfect at that moment we were born.
And just the other day I swear I saw a man there
Pulling weeds out of the concrete, sweeping up and patching cracks,
I saw him lift a rag to wash the years of filth from off those windows.
Made me wonder if there's anyone like that for you and me and
Anybody else who broke and lost hope.”
This, for me, provided the key to properly interpreting I See Everything. It wasn’t a song about religion being out of touch with life. I See Everything
There is arguably nothing more difficult for a family to endure than the death of a child. This could tear a family apart, any family apart. But it didn’t, in this case, and that was because the family was able to believe in something else. God here is a coping mechanism. And even if we might disagree, find the belief callous and unreal, the fact remains that it allowed the characters to survive and grow past a tragedy that most people would not even want to comprehend. Suddenly I didn’t find the song horrific, I found it beautiful, in a way that is best put to words in the climatic all our bruised bodies and the whole heart shrinks:“Am I better off just bursting or breaking? Because I don't see my heart getting strong.
Tell your stories to me. Show your bruises. Let's see what humanity is capable of handling.”
This song truly ties the album together. It references the stories from earlier tracks and sees the narrator reducing his struggle to its most basic component, a fear of pain, and turns it into a sort of ode to the universality and resiliency of the human spirit. It’s truly a beautiful moment, and one of the things that lifts this album up above nearly every other thing I heard last year. All Our Bruised Bodies and the Whole Heart Shrinks
The craft of the album is rather masterful, even beyond Bruised Bodies. It starts off personal, with the narrator seeing things around him without much investment in other stories, with frequent check ins for his personal state of being (this always calls to mind the “spider” structure of mewithoutYou’s Brother, Sister album). But then King Park hits, and the album throws track after track of intense, personal, specific suffering, as the narrator invests himself in these stories. The album feels like a true journey. With an expository opening, a gradually steepening rising action, a climax to tie everything together, and a brief, bittersweet falling with the final track.
I am 99.9% sure that this is the best Emo/posthardcore release since mewithoutYou’s A -> B Life in 2002, and it’s a shame that it is going to continue to be overlooked. Wilderness masterfully takes dramaticised pain and converts it to a personal, universal story. It’s like a handbook in how to take the characteristics of this genre and turn them into pure art. It’s still dramatic, it’s still emotional, but it’s dramatic and emotional in a way that works, a way that affects me no matter how many times I listen to it. Even if you are turned off by the thought of emo, or screamo, or post hardcore, Wildlife is an album that deserves to be given a chance.
But seriously, just compare these two. mewithoutYou - SilencerLa Dispute - A Poem