Beauty, Invention, and a Freshness That Outstrips Reliability

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It’s normally January when we here at SEM adopt some version of the editorial mea culpa stance and admit we missed some essential albums in the previous year. Come 2017, however, due to a variety of factors the bulk of which we’re sure require no explanation, the first month flashed by in a frightening blur. That said, saints be praised and all that, we’ve recovered our mojo sufficiently enough to bring you at least this one instance of ‘opportunity missed,’ the most recent – and stunning – piece of work from indie stalwarts The Wedding Present. While we appeal for your forgiveness for this late review, we also implore you to take heed. As rectified omissions go, few could be more imperative.

If, in among the ventricles and chambers, there existed what we might refer to as the ‘working class romantic’ sector of the human heart, the Wedding Present would be its favorite band, applauded from all sides for representing every small triumph and petty humiliation that would be sadly, gloriously familiar to any one among them that had ever thought they’d fallen in love, which, by most estimates, would be every one of them. This is the gist – the most basic pulling of heartstrings (which appropriately sounds like the act of a masochistic puppet) – that made John Peel adore them with such unabashed devotion, as, one cannot help but suspect, it was exactly such an emotional alleyway down which Mr Peel himself arrived at the trappings and clamor of adulthood, blinking into the glare like a shy virgin.

Now, the danger in inviting that type of lede assessment, as David Gedge and the Weddoes have done with a jarring consistency over the past 32 years, is, no surprise, the act of painting oneself into a creative corner. If your core audience has come to depend on, and take solace in, your tales from inside the blokey confines, the risk of demographic alienation should you consider expanding past those presumed, preset parameters, would be quite obvious. On the other hand – oh god why does there always have to be an other hand? – to simply deliver the goods as expected, neatly wrapped in the expected rambunctious, indie-schmindie packaging, all those charging chordy pop mechanics wired together by Gedge’s understatedly indomitable vocal stylings (is it the casual being frantic or the frantic nonchalant? And is it just me or has he always sounded a bit like a parking attendant singing on his nights off?) that are something of a Hüsker Düey ramalam for the smart if mildly depressed set, would rightly bring charges – from the critics, anyway – of laziness, of stasis for its own sake, a geezer cashing in once again on a formula that, successful though it’s been with its intended listeners, has varied but incrementally over its many years of service. Talk about being in a tight corner. How will our hero ever get out of this one?

The answer, is beauty. And invention. And a freshness that outstrips reliability. And a bit of a fuck-you attitude, though in this latter we feign no surprise, as surely the stubborn stolidity of simply maintaining that homogeneous sonic profile over several decades is in itself a two-fingered salute to convention (even side project Cinerama, slinkier though it’s been, lays pretty plainly in the straight-ahead sights of the parent project). It’s just this time, on Going, Going…, Gedge’s innate (and ever astute) laryness, at least at the outset, finds its expression in four mostly unparalleled excursions into a wordless, multivalent terrain that by historical WP standards border on outré. In any other auteur’s hands we’d find these pieces placed with decorative assurance throughout the album, palate cleansers as it were, meant to not only underscore the artist’s grasp of his own aesthetic grace but to subtly puncuate as well the artifact’s opus-like status. This would especially be expected on a double LP like G,G…, a format designed for such fey hackery. Not so here, no sir. Our man Gedge instead frontloads all four as if to intentionally strain his ardent fanbase’s patience, even going so far as to tack on one of the record’s most archetypal Wedding Present pop thrashes on the end of side one (“Two Bridges,” an existential statement of searching and purpose, delicately bruised as usual). It’s a willful enough move to have drawn frequent editorial comments that, in so many words, jokingly cast, said some version of ‘We thought we’d lost ’em,’ implicitly dismissing those first four tracks as some sort of undercard before the truly pugilistic main pop event gets underway. To this writer’s ears, that’s been a mistake, a sad act of restless impatience.

 

“Kittery,” opening, rides its mystic cymbal washes as it gathers cumulative tension – there’s a lost-in-a-silvery-fog feel to it – then lets loose in a fuzzed and budding catharsis as if this is Built To Spill sent to explore the murkier textures of doom. Riveting in its way if only to see what happens next, which as it happens is a seamless join with the experimental “Greenland” that, while somewhat less riveting, has a strange attraction, not least because the map coordinates being read by no less than Brix Smith, in a calm newsreader’s voice over ominous tom-toms and the bare shudder of a synth, don’t actually match the titular land of diminishing ice sheets but rather a scatter of compass points located throughout New England, including New York City. ‘Curiouser and curiouser’ we’re muttering and then the utterly beguiling “Marblehead” comes over the speakers and we forget where we are. The sound and melody pearls of lyrical restraint, something of a morose grandeur permeates, the Cocteaus-ish vocal track (Melanie Howard, AKA Such Small Hands) arrestingly beautiful, the steady, hold-fast progression implying love in a bleak world. It’s when the wondrous lament “Sprague” takes over immediately thereafter, a sparse but ringing take on the mournful – a crisp lonely clarity of piano, a lachrymal violin soon aided by the commiserating saw of a cello – that this otherwise baffling-to-many quadripartite opening reveals itself as a suite. And while what exactly it’s meant to convey – an intuitively derived travelogue of the soul’s journey through a sound-obsessed lifetime? Something more prosaic, like Gedge’s love of textural composition? – would be nothing less that reckless speculation, taken simply on its own terms, lying there in front of us in vulnerable view, it’s an immutably gorgeous medley, full of the stuff that makes us shiver with joy and/or smile in wry silence. Not only is it alone enough to recommend Going, Going... as a necessary Wedding Present album, but, in a suitable irony, this unorthodox tracking decision in fact ends up throwing into sharp relief the record’s ultimate standing as one of the band’s strongest efforts, the suite’s enigmatic-to-brooding nature paradoxically shining a burning light on the (comparatively lighter) standard Weddoes fare that follows.

‘Sprawling’ is, of course, the word double albums editorially attract most often, and while its application may appear benign it seems in most instances a mild imprecation, sullying as it quietly does with an implication of over-indulgence. To counteract that bias said record needs a tightness, a feel, at least, of cohesion. Going, Going…succeeds on this count by spraying sixteen tracks at us past those first four that, considered as a whole, might well have been designed as a chock-full See’s assortment of every Weddoes template we’ve come to know and cherish over the years (cohesion via a surplus of variety; do the ironies never stop with this guy?), all skewered together by the tropes of bothersome love, a Gedgean trademark everlasting. Yearned for, found but newly undesired, lost – oh so, so many lost and sorely reminisced over – whatever perilous outcome one can think of, the man via his narrators has been vexed by. And it’s stupendous to behold.

 

Under the more headlong banner stand such tracks as “Bear” – its thunderous fuzz providing ballast to what’s at heart another artfully arranged tale of post-breakup woe – the frenetic “Kill Devil Hills,” propulsive, primal, its lyrics nothing much to trumpet but then a vignette detailing animal attraction needn’t be; the grungey finesse of loser’s tale “Fifty-Six” where the rough faces off with the smooth until they decide to call it a draw and join forces for a lengthy, momentum-tight finale. You get the idea. There’s much of this about on G,G…, songs wherein the the blitz of a fine-wroughtedness appears undiminished since the band’s [George] best days. Spliced between, as promised above, come the heartwrenching respites (of a sort).

The soft/loud lurch of “Little Silver” that might, one supposes, test the limits of one’s presumptive threshold – ‘Oh no, not this again’ – if it wasn’t for the fact that when it’s this dazzling it would be churlish to care, as no one has the potential to do it better, nor, arguably, have they ever; similarly, “Emporia” spends over half its four-and-a-half minute running time as a swanning dirge, sighs of jealousy (what else?) painted in the deliberate brushwork of empathy before the rage, with satisfying malice, takes over. “Wales,” meanwhile, sets that land’s inscrutable language (the lyrics translate into a sort of tourette’s-based valentine) inside an instrumental that one could reasonably call ‘brutally efflorescent,’ resulting in a track that’s nearly as dizzyingly Delphic as “Greenland.”

 

All said a long and fruitful trip across four sides of vinyl that in its scope and many trajectories, besides never lacking for scenery – turn every which way inside any given track and something of a seasoned nuance will jump out at you – finds the Wedding Present assuredly, with a sense of calm even, outdoing themselves. There’s a suggestion on Going, Going…of all their legendary vestiges being gathered together into a full-dimensional cataract of sound that stands them not only in stark and towering contrast to their peers – what few remain – but to the long specter of their own past catalog as well. Maturity would seem to suit them in ways we might not likely have imagined.

Gedge’s romanticism, quelle surprise, remains of the restless, not altogether optimistic type, making it rather constitutionally impossible for cynicism to relinquish its grip. The guy, perhaps despite himself, is a realist of the heart with the flexion of his guitar-playing muscles always at the tense and ready for when the inevitable stormclouds roil over the horizon, obscuring all those pretty sunsets and their pretty promises, hope a shadow of its former self. Glimmers, however, will continue to peek through, not so much bravely as implacably. The fool, you see, just can’t help it, a tenacity for which we’ve cleaved him to our breasts since he and his band first emerged from the wilds of Leeds in those innocent, insouciant days of enthusiasm pre-internet. His palates now broadened, there’s no telling where David Gedge’s beautifully ruined sensibilities may lead him. But with, yes, an opus like this now secured and in the vault, we can be assured that wherever his taunting but vital muse takes him next, we’ll likely follow dutifully behind. We’ve come this far, we’re not about to turn away now.