Everything We've Ever Dreamed
463 · 11 December 03
Wheat: Per Second, Per Second, Per Second...Every Second
I have come to live suspended between the Borgesian certainty that all praise is valid of something, and the hapless inverse-solipsist fear that in the storm between minds adoration and objects are remorselessly spun apart. We love in all the same directions, but physics stops us from occupying the same point and time, and aesthetics complies by enforcing a petulant Euclidian geometry of taste in which parallel loves can share no points. In the moments when I believe this in all its exact implications, loving records hurts in proportion. The more precisely I understand what this album does to me, the more sure I am that it doesn't do that to you. Intransigent math cannot be talked through.
Medeiros, the first Wheat album, was murkily sputtering low-fi hum, like sleepy chrysalides for one-day Buffalo Tom songs. Hope and Adams, the second, traded some of its independence for clarity, and I thought found ways to refine claustrophobia into safety, and obliqueness into proportion. If we can't talk about music, then we can't talk about anything, yet sometimes we manage. Maybe we rarely love the same thing the same ways, but rarely is still better than never, and maybe some of the rest of the time we're close.
And if we might be close, then what one album does to me, some album much like it might do to you, and vice versa. I thought Medeiros was uninvolving but interesting. For me Hope and Adams was almost as shy but quietly mesmerizing, and I'm sure some people thought it was already a betrayal. Per Second is Wheat's major-label debut, and a principled backlash would be virtually mandated by the implicit only-hits-matter pinheadedness embodied in the very idea of a third album being any kind of "debut" by virtue of sponsorship, even if the music sounded exactly the same.
And there's no way to pretend that the music sounds the same. There's no way to pretend that it even wants to. Somewhere in the depths of shyness, Wheat have found the courage to be spectacular. Factor out subjective judgments, and "sell-out" and "breakthrough" acknowledge a shared recognition of change. They agree, in fact, that particular changes have happened: that the new songwriting provides more obvious contours, the new arrangements more deliberately emphasize them, and the new production more carefully (or, to recurse the argument, more cynically) attempts to position them in the best glow of prevailing light. Per Second is Wheat's attempt to make an album anybody could understand. Late enough at night, I'm a populist after all. I have the cathartic realization, listening to Per Second, Per Second, Per Second...Every Second for I've lost track of the how manyth time, that I'm finally hearing the album that the most hyperbolic reviews of the Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin and Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Broken Social Scene's You Forgot It in People described. The Flaming Lips struck me as insufferably precious instead of charming, I never heard grand scope or methodical eccentricity in the mundanely dreary YHF, and I never understood how BSS's smug noodling qualified as pop at all. But I wanted to. I wanted YHF to be a kind of earnest and condensed 69 Love Songs. I wanted The Soft Bulletin to be half a non-self-defeating GbV and half a more-cosmopolitan Sloan. I wanted You Forgot It in People to be a muted indie band's inexplicable metamorphosis into an answer I could give at parties when a normal person asks what I like. And when they weren't, I wanted something to be. I hated the records, but envied the loves, and saved them. They come pouring back out as I listen to this.
Whichever kind of new you think this album hopes to be, it has to start on a high. "I Met a Girl", the advance single and the opening track, goes straight for broke, a virtuoso novelty-song on the order of Weezer's "The Sweater Song" reimagined by Gaudí. The introductory three-chord acoustic-guitar broadside is cheerful misdirection, after which the song promptly careens into an intricate metarhythm of controlled-fall stop/start drums, booming bass asides, headphone-ping-ponging electric-guitar squawks and vocal reflections, and Scott Levesque's wistful voice hanging over it all like Damocles' lesser-known flannel sheets. "You've got permission to see other men while you sleep", he sighs, and the glibly repeated chorus ("I met a girl I'd like to know better, / But I'm already with someone", honed to the same catchphrase sharpness as "Take a walk on the wild side" or "We don't need no education" or "Baby's got back") modulates from resentment through ruefulness to conviction even as the music swirls. Every instrument spikes, every word pings. In Hope and Adams' idioms, this could have sounded like Sebadoh muting the Goo Goo Dolls. Hypercrafted, instead, it's more like Gang of Four doing drum-and-bass.
The responsibilities of parts flip, more or less, for the alternately gurgling and soaring "Breathe for Me Now", the drums ticking patiently and the guitars glittering while the bass circles restlessly and Levesque arches on off beats. But keyboards whistle airily into the plaintive choruses, as haunted confusion resolves into "So breathe for me now, / Because I can't find the air", a last-resort in leaving. Chirpy guitar hooks coalesce like old soul ghosts, and backing vocals enfold them in cloud gauze, and maybe all those hours we spent watching Solid Gold weren't wholly wasted after all. And the last shreds of reticence fall away by "These Are the Things", as a hushed, talky piano-and-strings ballad suddenly unfolds into an imagined reconstruction of Soul Asylum simultaneously discovering Papas Fritas and Thin Lizzy. "Rental cars and topless bars sit underneath the radar just a bit", they say, and I think they mean that we try to borrow the tokens of our dreams, but music is real where porn is symbolic, never more so than in the paired moments of unadulterated magic here when the jumpy, swelling bridges either click back down to cycling verses or leap up into the choruses as if grabbing the runners of a passing helicopter. If Almost Famous were a time-travel movie, this could be the bus sing-along to supplant "Tiny Dancer", as long as the driver had the self-control to sit out the pogoing bits.
If Wheat's transformation is to follow the most obvious recent precedent, Jimmy Eat World, then Wheat need a "Lucky Denver Mint", and they probably come closest with the methodically simple "Life Still Applies", whose rattly snare-drum production could be a textbook in itself. The verses are content to simmer, atmospherics evoking old U2, but the rosary-esque choruses, just the title repeated in a fluttery falsetto, carry the song halfway to "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand" without even a sample assist. But just when it seems like Wheat may be willing to collapse into formula, "Go Get the Cops" pares down to two breathy voices, meditative organ, distracted percussion eventually doubled on drums, and tendrils of shimmery strings. Levesque, singing with (I think) himself, balances Paul and Art against Alan and Mimi, and with a simple seasonal rewrite the result would make a perfectly plausible Christmas carol.
If it were my decision, "Some Days" would be the second single. "I Met a Girl" is more overt about its aims, and probably has a better chance of catching initial attention, but the second single is the payoff, and "Some Days" has a crisp drumbeat as close to pop-perfect as anything since "She Drives Me Crazy" (plus a couple shuffly fills, so there is such a thing as progress), ascending "ooh ooh ooh" backing vocals and one of those virulent one-note lead doodles that every good sitcom theme song used to have, and comes out sounding like Lenny Kravitz finally decided to show Prince what "Manic Monday" and "Neon Telephone" could have been if they'd been written for a grown-up Replacements reunion. "World United Already", next, could easily be the b-side, one of the other guys (I think) taking a turn on lead vocals, an unclutteredly comforting John-Waite-by-way-of-Buffalo-Tom arrangement tweaked by somebody obdurately underlining the choruses with what sounds like a "Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah." punched out an old Casio mini-sampler.
The pulsing, Red House Painterly "Hey So Long (Ohio)" is as close as Per Second comes to returning to Hope and Adams, and even there they can't resist appending a giddy falsetto coda. "The Beginner" pares back to gruff voice and acoustic guitar, with a few shreds of ambient noise. But then clanging piano, fuzzed guitar and striding drums sweep back into nostalgic rock memory with capes flaring, and "Can't Wash It Off" is as ebullient a throwback as the Delgados "All You Need Is Hate". "Closer to Mercury", an order of magnitude more dignified in this full incarnation than in the far sparer Too Much Time preview EP demo, starts off in blippy Sesame Street piano strut before flinging itself into a chorus that makes me wonder whether there was recently some Boston-area Thin Lizzy contest that Wheat and Ted Leo knew about but I didn't. And "This Rough Magic" opens like glassy Radiohead before morphing into something like Grant Lee Buffalo trying gamely to follow mistranslated assembly instructions for David Gray's White Ladder but eventually giving up and deciding that it would be better in waltz-time and there ought to be a trumpet solo. "I hope god will mend / The little things I break and bend / And equal it to the love I made". Grammar is not the heart's concern. This, and not an abduction of souls, is what we should ask for before laying down for sleep.
But the album isn't quite done, and if you knew Wheat before, how you'll react to the whole record can probably be predicted from how you like the unlisted bonus track. It's the same recast version of the Hope and Adams song "Don't I Hold You" from the preview EP, but I hadn't taken the time to do the A/B comparison myself until now. I believe it's mostly just been remixed, but maybe some of the vocals have been redone. This is a very basic heresy. I empathize deeply with the constant urge to revise your own history, but when you do it like this, one song at a time out of context, you just call attention to exactly what you're trying to undo. Your new songs are a far better answer to your old songs than trying to make your old songs sound newer.
And yet, for once I admit that I buy even this. I delete the short spacer silence from iTunes, and let "Don't I Hold You" be the album's new finale. The remix, painstakingly cleaning and repainting the same details the old version left indistinct, replicates the revelation of the whole album in instructive miniature. Sometimes revisionism is just better research, and this time I'm willing to believe that Per Second is what Wheat wanted to sound like all along. I flip back and forth between the versions of this song, and between the albums, and I don't hear the band changing their mind, I hear them knowing more, and taking better care. Sometimes money buys more time, and better tools. Yes, I've loathed my share of these changed records, most bitterly Mark Eitzel's West, Beth Nielsen Chapman's You Hold the Key, Vitamin C and the execrable new Liz Phair record. But I love so many more than I've ever hated. I love Clannad's Sirius and Manic Street Preachers' Gold Against the Soul and the Boo Radleys' Wake Up! and Everclear's So Much for the Afterglow and Veruca Salt's Eight Arms to Hold You and Buffalo Tom's Smitten and Liz Phair's whitechocolatespaceegg and Jimmy Eat World's Bleed American. I love Fugazi's Repeater and Low's Secret Name and Tori Amos's from the choirgirl hotel, for that matter, though it would be harder to explain how those belong to the same patterns. I confess to my romantic weaknesses. I hate and distrust the machinery that makes humans into action figures, but I love hearing one more guardedly self-effacing band try to imagine how they would save the world. I know what you mean if you say it's wrong, but part of the flaw of ethics as an art-critical tool is that it is forced to reduce the trinity of inspiration, execution and communication to an inadequate opposition of means and ends. It doesn't matter whether Wheat hope to sell more copies of this than they did of the other ones. It matters what animates these songs, and how, and what we feel when we listen. Or if this isn't the album that makes you feel this way, then at least it matters that songs have anima, and that records are made by people, and that we reserve the power to believe in a few we could have doubted. If the records we've dreamed of exist after all, then maybe everything we've ever dreamed of is merely waiting to be.