Jenn Wasner, singer/guitarist/lyricist of Wye Oak, has described their third album, Civilian, as being devoted to the subjects “aloneness (the positive kind), loneliness (the horrible kind), moving on, and letting go (of people, places, and things)”. The former two subjects are represented almost instantly on opener “Two Small Deaths”, which opens with a deluge of incomprehensible chatter. After 15 or so seconds, a wall of soft feedback slowly swallows those voices. Whether Wye Oak is headed for the positive or horrible brand of solitude is not immediately clear, but they’re certainly retreating from the crowd into their own headspace.
Fortunately, Civilian offers plenty of reasons as to why Wye Oak’s headspace is a perfectly lovely place to be. Like Beach House’s Teen Dream (to which this album will inevitably be compared), Civilian is stocked with languid and warm slow-burners that only grow more engaging on every listen. Of course, the fact that Wasner’s raspy coo shares a lot with Victoria Legrand’s doesn’t hurt the comparison.
So, while it may be strange to be preemptively protective of an album that no one has had the opportunity to criticize, I feel the need to defend Civilian from the possibility of any future aspersions casting it as a retread of Teen Dream. There are sonic similarities to be certain, but Wasner and multi-instrumentalist Andy Stack build such a lavish dream-pop atmosphere out of so little that the only appropriate reaction seems to be to surrender to it. When faced with shimmering gems like “The Altar”, or gorgeously depressive ballads like “Plains”, there’s no sense in questioning the alchemy behind them. Just luxuriate in their glow.
Furthermore, Wye Oak is in possession of a number of distinctive elements, none more noteworthy than Wasner’s fluid and often-incendiary guitar work. Whether effortlessly grounding “Two Small Deaths” with her graceful picking, nailing the loopy tones of early ‘90s slacker pop on “Dog Eyes”, or just plain tearing a mile wide hole into the grand finale of “Civilian” with an explosive solo, Wasner proves herself to be an invaluable stylistic chameleon on the axe. Of course, Stack deserves his share of the credit, providing unfailingly tasteful accompaniment and often subtly instigating powerful boosts in energy. “Hot As Day”, possibly Civilian’s most overtly brawny moment, owes a great deal of its success to Stack’s forceful pounding.
Wye Oak manage a delicate balancing act on Civilian, keeping their approach varied enough to make sure that every track has a singular identity, yet maintaining a consistency in mood that forces the listener to consume the album as a whole. Whether relishing the joys of self-imposed seclusion, or lamenting a less deliberate sort of isolation, Wye Oak have provided their listeners with an ideal aural companion for whatever brand of loneliness they choose.