Their previous releases have been full of concrete songs, made up of very definable riffs and melodies. They were the equivalent of a period, and even sometimes an exclamation point (especially live). “Civilian,” their new album out March 8 on Merge, is much more of an ellipsis. Songs are fluid and less defined, with the point being less singing along and more sharing a mood with the listener.
Considered in this light, “Civilian” is a total success: it puts the listener in a pensive, languorous state that would be best paired with a rainy, lazy summer afternoon and a porch hammock.
If you’re looking for more songs like the epic “I Hope You Die” off “My Neighbor/My Creator,” you’re going to categorize this album as a total failure. There are no go-for-the-throat pop melodies here. That’s not what Wye Oak was trying to do with this album, and they successfully accomplish making no ditties. You will not sing along to any of these songs, with the possible exception of “Holy Holy.” Even that’s a stretch, though; the melody is purposefully disjointed when it could be smoothed out. They are seeking other pastures than pop here.
And, as previously noted, it works well. The band is able to sustain a mood without lapsing into repetition or boring the listener, which usually constitute the two-headed beast that devours mood pieces like “Civilian.” Instead, they keep the mood through a consistent guitar mood and Jenn Wasner’s unique vocal timbre. The rhythms, patterns and structures bend and fade, but the guitar and the voice remain similar enough that the album hangs together.
This is a bit of a left turn for the band, and it depends on your point of view whether it’s a step forward or back. There are people who will pine for big pop payoffs, while others will celebrate songwriting maturity. I fall in both camps: I’m sad this album isn’t full of a dozen immediately arresting tracks like “My Creator,” but now I’ve got a solid batch of tunes to look forward to when the rains dampen summer. —Stephen Carradini