, September 3rd, 2012 02:14
"The world is collapsing around our ears / I switch on the radio," sang R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, way back in 1991, when in fact, we had at least another 15 years of lovely housing bubble to enjoy. Most of the acts associated with the late '00s resurgence in C86-cribbing dream pop are right now playing that game: turning inwards while the world gets scary, choosing to raid their record collections and run with the stuff that makes them happy, to sing about and even celebrate romantic turbulence and childish dreams rather than howl into the massive abyss. Either a major capitulation to the forces of darkness, or a restatement of the point of pop - it depends on your take.
Wild Nothing, the recording name of Jack Tatum, opened his pretty debut Gemini with a track called 'Live In Dreams', in which he laid out a pretty typical manifesto: "our lips won't last forever / and that's exactly why I'd rather live in dreams". That record, a lo-fi, bedroom stitching-together of influences, managed to conjure the spirit of the genre's first wave while also being perfectly charming in its own right, marking Tatum out as, at the very least, a pretty special pop purveyor. While mainly backward-looking, it was clear that he at least did this thing brilliantly. 'Nocturne', then, is pretty much the follow-up you'd expect from an act that accidentally got bigger than the writer intended, and whose only stated aim with the sequel has been to make the kind of pop that would exist in his "ideal world". If you're looking for something with teeth, or if you can't stand modern US indie's propensity to wuss out and be vacantly gorgeous with it, you're not going to go in for this. But if Gemini kept you going for a summer (and beyond), there's lots to love.
The most notable difference between Nocturne and its predecessor is its flashier production, ditching the playful 'what does this button do' values in favour of a richer, more classicist sound, courtesy of Nicholas Vernes at the dials. Opener and single 'Shadow' allows Tatum to indulge in strings, and there's a bath of ambience and guitar-noise as New-Order-doing-80s-cop-show-theme 'Paradise' breaks down for an immersive bridge, but nowhere on the record does Tatum go mad with power. The little embellishments - a spanish guitar overdub on 'Through The Grass', for example, or the cute stadium solo on 'Disappear Always' - avoid playing out as attempts at 'maturity' or 'progression', instead nicely adorning already thought-through songs and giving the impression of a writer enjoying finding new ways to play.
Like Gemini, there's a sense of Nocturne being comprised of one central idea cut up into chunks, with tonal variety pretty lacking. Reverb coats almost everything, and there's nary a drum sound on the record that hasn't at least flirted with a bit of delay, while the nearly-constant synth, used sparingly on Gemini and probably a consequence of writing parts for the full band to play on the road, can make for some fairly samey tracks. 'Midnight Song' flies by without leaving much of a trace and it's not really until 'Only Heather' that anything approaching the pace and playfulness of, say, a 'Summer Holiday', crop up.
While the ambitious closer and curveball 'Rheya' and aforementioned 'Paradise' hark back to Tatum's brilliant cover of Kate Bush's 'Cloudbusting', much of the record is made up of standard jangle-pop genre exercises that build on Gemini without tearing anything up. Often, Tatum's barely-there vocals, while offering space for the music to do most of the talking, can leave songs feeling underdeveloped, and there's sadly nothing here quite as out-there as the cheap, indadvertedly brilliant 'Pessimist' or 'Bored Games' from Gemini. But then 'This Chain Won't Break' and 'Counting Days', a funky sister to 'China Town' do have hooks most songwriters would punch a baby for, so it mainly seems like a fair trade off: less weird, more accomplished.
There are two approaches to Tatum's rather scant lyrics on this record: either he's not got much to say, or he's being coy. I'm tempted to side with the latter, because while there are plenty of serviceable but vacuous lines like 'Only Heather's "she is so lovely / she makes me high", there's also the wonderfully sad 'Disappear Always', which touches on depression with lines about "flat dreams" and rising at noon, and proves, to this ear at least, that when Tatum lets us in he's interesting company. Elsewhere, you'll get to hear lots about "twisted" lovers and mis-spent nights, and a special mention must go to the title track's suggestive chorus of "you can have me", which is about as sexy as totally detached gets.
All said, Nocturne is a little less lovable than Gemini because Tatum's made a few of these moves before and so the impact is inevitably lessened. And like Beach House's pretty, but basically retro Bloom earlier in the year, it will probably bore to tears people looking for something brand new and who don't surrender so easily to simple, unfussy, nostalgic confection. But even if Nocturne isn't going to shove Wild Nothing to the front of any groundbreaking movement, it's still a really good record, made by a guy who likes really good records and who seems really happy to share the refinement of his craft with us.