Two years ago, Jack Tatum released Gemini, his first album under the Wild Nothing moniker, and turned heads of the entire indie rock world. We hypothesized that Tatum was “too young to mine the ’80s for the rest of his life”, yet Wild Nothing’s sophomore effort, Nocturne, easily lends itself to a bevy of ’80s music descriptions. When I went back to my stream-of-consciousness first listen notes, I found them full of 25-year-old cultural references: The title track “sounds like something out of a John Hughes film”; “Through the Grass” has “a Peter Gabriel ‘Biko’ type feel, but without the politics”; “Paradise” “almost starts off like ‘Time After Time’”; and “The Blue Dress” “starts to sound a little like an outtake from a Tangerine Dream session”.
But is that something to fault Wild Nothing for? Absolutely not. Our modern aesthetic has completely absorbed the fact that contemporary artists emulate ’80s sounds. Besides, the title track uses a modern-styled guitar arpeggio (or: The Ellie Goulding “Lights” Effect) and just enough digital tricks to remind the listener that it’s 2012, not 1982.
There are things to love about Nocturne, but ultimately, it’s a sophomore slump. Well, maybe more of a gentle lean than a slump. Tatum’s sound boasts bright production values, such as the acoustic guitar strumming that augments the optimistic sound on album opener “Shadow”. That song highlights another trait that Tatum carried over from Gemini: his uncanny ability for delicious riffs. The syncopated hook on “Shadow” starts off in the guitar, eventually echoed by orchestral strings.
The lyrics don’t probe too deeply into the mind of the author, distance that allows for a purely aural connection without getting too emotionally invested: Dance, enjoy, and feel good, but don’t look here for transcendence or a visceral connection. He gets close at times, such as “I try to feel something for you/ But that’s all that I can do/ Keep a shadow to you,” yet these still feel like love song cliches.
On “This Chain Won’t Break”, Tatum reveals something of himself: “I don’t know just what I got myself into/ All I know is that I can’t let go.” While he could be singing about any number of pop tropes (love, drugs, fame, the road), these lines could also speak to Tatum’s inability to let go of his successful songwriting formula. Unlike Gemini, many of the tracks on Nocturne feature a homogeneity that begins to tire by the eighth or ninth track.
Tatum traffics in pretty basic rock elements. He always incorporates powerful back beat (sometimes with that wonderful ’80s relic, the gated reverb snare drum), syncopated riffs, distorted strummed guitars, and a repetitive staccato guitar part. By the time we get to the album’s closer, “Rheya”, there’s an almost hackneyed, prototypical Wild Nothing structure at work. Perhaps it’s a statement on the depleted mental state of the subject in “Rheya”, who sings “I don’t want to remember this life,” but the formula has become too predictable to attribute any strong lyrical connection to it.
As a whole, Nocturne does not present enough variety to succeed as an artistic unit. Naturally, the songs that do contrast jump out at the listener, even on an album where most tracks are above average. “Through the Grass” immediately suggests early ’80s Peter Gabriel with its sparse, atypical drums and a vaguely exotic guitar tone. Another highlight, “Paradise”, develops slowly despite a fast drum beat and hard percussive strumming. Like most tracks on Nocturne, here Tatum favors a gradual and repetitive building up of the many instrumental parts rather than a solo, erupting finally with those grandiose snares.
Listening to Gemini again, it becomes clear that the nouveau-’80s sound is even more pronounced on Nocturne. Perhaps this is exactly what Tatum was after. On his label website, he admits, “I don’t think it’s going to be a secret to anyone that I care about pop music, but it’s definitely more my sense of what pop music used to be, or even what pop music would be in my ideal world.” Nocturne embodies one artist’s sense of what pop used to be, so maybe the future will bring the perfect balance between his two albums, his ideal world.
Essential Tracks: “Shadow”, “Through the Grass”, “Paradise”