The first sound you hear on Wye Oak’s new album, The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs, is that of a piano tuning up. It’s swiftly followed by a variety of other instruments rearing up for what sounds like an orchestra. On a base level, it’s a simple trick to get the listener ready for what’s to come, but those well-versed in Wye Oak’s ever-changing discography can take the tuning to mean something more exciting: a fresh start. The band’s fifth full album (excluding 2015’s outtakes collection, Tween) is both the quintessential Wye Oak release and a new direction for a band well-versed in zigging when fans hope they zag.
When Wye Oak broke out with 2011’s Civilian, the Baltimore duo did so on the wings of Jenn Wasner’s crashing guitar and Andy Stack’s complex drum-and-keyboard arrangement. On songs like the title track and the stunning “Holy Holy,” the band layered clean-sounding folk-indie pop alongside waves of noise and Wasner’s signature vocals – withdrawn but never cold, loud but never overwhelming. The result was a rush of popularity for a band that had, to date, dabbled in forceful and (at times) unfriendly slowcore rock; suddenly, they were doing press rushes and appearances on late night.
Despite the critical success of Civilian, however, the band veered hard on its next album, 2014’s Shriek, which saw more electronic influences seeping into their work. On that album, the band gave Wasner more room to explore not only her powerful vocals, but also her bass; in recording Shriek, she decided to swap six strings for four, and supplement the sound with synths. The result might have been disappointing for fans who fell in love with their louder tendencies, but it produced more consistent work in a period of transition that also saw Wasner release a pair of overlooked side project LPs as the more experimental Flock of Dimes and the electropop goodness that was Dungeoness.
The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs continues that evolution, while adding back some of the old guitar tricks for the “I miss the old Wye Oak/the melt my face Wye Oak” crowd. It doesn’t sound like anything they’ve done before, but then again, they’ve never been a band to rehash sounds. There’s no one that sounds quite like Wye Oak does from album to album, not even them. Here, the twinkling synths of Shriek collide against the marauding guitars of Civilian, eschewing normal melodies or even song structures in order to sound more purely Wye Oak...whatever that means.
On early highlight “Lifer,” what sounds like an idyllic first half, woozy and ethereal, is brought to life with the injection of a jarring guitar run. On paper, it shouldn’t work; on record, it’s a stunning return to form. There are little moments throughout The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs that similarly stun. The clear guitar that opens “Join” is, well, joined by synths and drum machine rhythm, building on top of each other until it sounds like the whole track will fall apart. It never does.
Perhaps no song on the new album does more work than the exhilarating “Symmetry,” fittingly slotted in the middle of the record. Guitars move around in the mix, a maze of sound that feels disconcerting while it also propels Stack’s tricky rhythms forward. (One thing that remains constant here is Stack’s drumming, which remains a grounding force alongside the band’s flightier tendencies.) All the while, a pounding synth beat makes this sound almost like it could be on any of the many, many neon-aping 80s revival soundtracks du jour. It’s a song that sounds alien to devotees of either of the band’s main musical iterations, which is quite an achievement for a band that has been together for over a decade.
So, with all that in mind, what is the album actually about? Wasner has never been the most broad of lyricists - “Civilian” roars into its climactic guitar anti-solo on the back of “Perfectly able to hold my own hand, but I still can't kiss my own neck” - but The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs gets closest to making her into a sage for the modern era. There’s a wisdom brought on by age here, such as in “The Instrument,” wherein she sings “I can’t hold onto my anger, though sometimes, it would do me good” with a world-weary acceptance. It’s a wisdom that you can’t change what life throws at you, but you can tweak what you make of it.
Perhaps born from the distance-covering partnership – Stack now lives in Texas, while Wasner is in North Carolina – or perhaps due to a life of fighting with your own creativity to define what is “your sound, but Wye Oak sounds tired-yet-unbroken on The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs. The restlessness that they felt in the lead up to Shriek – Wasner said that it was essential to switch gears to continue the band – has settled into a more-measured growth that still manages to thrill as it envelops you in a warm blanket of electronic pop and noise chords.
It’s risky to bounce around genres and even instruments from album to album. You might even be considered reckless for possibly alienating your built-in fanbase that, despite whatever claims they might have about wanting something new, just want the hits ad nauseum. Wye Oak has always been reluctant to give its devoted following just that has made them a frustrating band to follow for some, but an absolute gift for others. On The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs, Wasner and Stack take the lessons from the last decade and merge (pun somewhat intended) them into a cohesive unit, for once. Wye Oak has made so many sharp left turns since it’s 2007 debut that they have gotten back to the start. The miles they traveled to get there show, and finally, we have what can be considered the definitive Wye Oak record. That is, until they veer off course for the next one.