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Music Review: The Wrens – The Meadowlands

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The Wrens’ The Meadowlands is a musical masterpiece of hurt, disappointment, and failure. The album was released seven years after their previous effort, the soon to be back-in-print Secaucus. The New Jersey band had been dropped from their record label (then known as Grass Records) after a new owner changed the name (to Wind-Up) and gave them an ultimatum of producing popular songs for the masses or making music some place else.

The Wrens chose the latter. Wind-Up found their mainstream band in Creed (and, later, Evanescence), and our heroes’ musical future was in limbo. The answer for band members Charles Bissell and brothers Greg and Kevin Whelan was to move in together in Secaucus, New Jersey, located just outside of New York City, and work on their music when time allowed between their everyday jobs. Released in 2003 on the Absolutely Kosher label, The Meadowlands was six years in the making and now seems destined to become a classic, if not for the masses, then certainly for anyone who can relate and identify with the pain and uncertainty so gracefully found in the album’s songs.

It’s been so long
since you’ve heard from me
got a wife and kid
that I never see
and I’m nowhere near
what I dreamed I’d be
I can’t believe
what life has done to me

Those are the lyrics, in their entirety, to the album’s first track. The brief ”the house that guilt built” (all track titles are in lowercase on the album), perfectly sets the tone for the remainder of the album. There’s always a tendency to scoff at such “woe-is-me” type lyrics, but this is not the stuff of teenager angst.

Part of the album’s charm lies in the raw emotion the band has clearly put into the record. It’s the sound of individuals with their backs against the wall and the adversity they’ve faced has fed their creativity. The second song, "happy," builds and builds and builds to a rousing celebration of self-pity and hope. It’s a nearly epic beginning, promising, and ultimately delivering, great things.

I find the next song, “she sends kisses,” a little sub-par in comparison to the rest of the album and probably listen to it less than any of the other full length tracks. All the themes explored throughout the album are still there, but the keyboard-heavy music is a little too slow to fully win me over, although, the lyrics are especially strong and almost painfully intimate.

“This boy is exhausted” is probably the most accessible track found on The Meadowlands. Nevertheless, the subject matter, as with the rest of the album, is challenging and filled with a regret that rings true. It conjures up ideas of what young men are supposed to do after college, when they’ve seemingly got their whole lives ahead of them but actually have no clue what their future should be. It’s a powerful song that shouldn’t be dismissed because of its poppy, upbeat tempo. The first-person difficulties in trying to find success in music at an advanced age are explored with poignancy.

The album’s fifth track, “hopeless,” is a cathartic and angry tribute to self-pity that will resonate with anyone struggling to figure out what the next step should be in life (which is most of us, at one point or another). It centers around a relationship past the point of salvaging and the bitter aftermath of moving on. “Faster gun” bristles with a poppy, fast-paced rhythm that, like “this boy is exhausted,” might disguise the fear and despair found in the lyrics, which are nearly indecipherable aside from the title and mostly absent in the otherwise helpful liner notes.

In fact, The Meadowlands can be a deceptively upbeat record at times and fails to prepare the listener for the emotional weight found in both the up-tempo and the slower songs. The seventh track, “thirteen grand,” is another fine little ode to the end of a relationship, even if its slow, dreamy pace doesn’t strike me as much as other songs on the album.

The song “boys, you won’t” is one of my personal favorites. It starts with a familiar melancholy verse and evolves into a defiant, hopeful chorus as inspiring as anything on the album. The song’s lyrics, however, also welcome an interpretation of a narrator in denial who can’t face the reality of a break-up. ”ex-girl collection,” the ninth song, continues the theme of regret that permeates the album. I always come back to the line “she pours herself a ‘don’t ask’ gin” and its strong imagery each time I think of the song. It’s lyrically the strongest track on The Meadowlands and almost painfully personal, like reading a stranger’s innermost, unfiltered thoughts. Curiously, the song ends with a televangelist preaching about Jesus.

“Per second second” (a physics reference to the acceleration of gravity) is another fast-paced song, but much lighter in tone than the other rockers. The audio is muddled more on this track than most of the album, but the music is raw and the song rewards repeat listens to try and figure out what words the singer is using. It’s a strange one and ends abruptly, leading into the crunchy guitars of “everyone chooses sides,” a great song with opaque lyrics.

The penultimate track, “13 months in 6 minutes,” revisits the ethereal earlier tracks and actually runs closer to 7 minutes including the outro, which sounds like it belongs with a completely different song yet still works. The final song is a short, drunken rendition called ”this is not what you had planned” on piano. It’s mostly a curiosity and probably should be looked at as akin to a hidden track instead of a whole song.

The great thing about The Meadowlands is that, despite its themes of loneliness and uncertainty, it’s not a depressing album. Instead, there’s a great deal of hope to be found amidst the lyrics and music that prevent a sense of wallowing in one’s own unhappiness. Even if there’s a significant amount of angst and sadness wandering around, this isn’t emo, “lock-yourself-in-your-bedroom-and-cry” music. Instead, The Wrens give the listener a much deeper, mature sense of longing for something seemingly out of reach without wanting to quit the journey.

The Meadowlands is probably one of the absolute best records almost no one has heard (just under 35,000 copies sold). It did receive some acclaim when the Internet music site pitchfork gave it a glowing review and placed it quite high on its year-end list of best albums in 2003. If you’re like me, however, and could care less about the sniveling nitwits at that particular website, don’t let their laudatory review turn you off from such a brilliant album.

The Wrens’ accomplishments can stand on their own and this record is a masterpiece once you let the music and lyrics meld after a few plays. Some songs, such as “this boy is exhausted” and “faster gun” are poppy enough to appeal after hearing them once or twice, but the whole album really coalesces upon subsequent listens.

I also have to mention how wonderful my one and only experience seeing The Wrens live was and how hesitant I am to see them again for fear of somehow devaluing that performance. I had the good fortune of seeing them in March of 2004 in New York City at a small club that holds roughly 150 people. A then-unknown band named The Arcade Fire opened up the show and they certainly lived up to the reputation they’ve gained since then. Still, however, The Wrens were the star attraction and earned their modest headliner title by giving an energetic, blistering performance that really made the songs on The Meadowlands feel alive and vibrant. I can’t imagine anyone in the crowd who had heard their album feeling less than satisfied, if not mesmerized, by The Wrens’ powerful exhibition.

The Meadowlands is the rare album that breaks the fourth wall and includes songs about the band and its members, even specifically citing members and the band name in the lyrics (with frequent mention of specific towns in New Jersey). It’s probably the only kind of album The Wrens could honestly make at that point in their lives/careers. Spectators on the outside often forget there are hundreds of bands who never achieve success or financial stability and The Wrens, with The Meadowlands, remind us that dreams are difficult to achieve. This is an album that seeps into your pores. No matter how long I go between listens, each time I hear these songs, they affect me and they’re beautiful.

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