When something’s wrong, can you feel it? When you’re falling short, do you know it? Or do you have to wait for someone to tell you? Would you rather they didn’t and let you keep on thinking things were fine?
I’m not saying Sun and Shade is a bad Woods record. But I fell into woozy, exhausting love with 2009’s Songs of Shame, a disjointed and exuberant pastiche that imagined Neil Young fronting a band of actual fairies, strung together with a series of exalted, unnerving, haunting vocal hooks. Most of the ingredients that made Shame great are still here in some form: the spidery, crunchy country-fried guitar work; shambolic drumming; and of course, Jeremy Earl’s unique falsetto, still riding the line between vulnerable and alien. And the recording and mix make things undeniably cleaner here, the virtues of which only a few perverse sorts would debate in itself.
But it’s those hooks, perfectly crafted and then perfectly dismembered, that are most regrettably missing from Sun and Shade. The prettier recording wraps up songwriting that seems perfunctory and performances that sound tired by comparison to the psychedelic dervishes Woods first appeared as. Tracks like “Hand it Out” aren’t just melancholy; they’re droopy and aimless. If you want a quantification of the lack of ideas, it’s 7:10 — that’s the length of “Out of the Eye,” a pulsing take on Can meets The Velvet Underground, which is a decent proposal in itself, but as the album’s fourth track undermines the idea that Woods is a band about songs. Songs of Shame had a couple of similar jams, but they felt like welcome reprieves from the unnerving emotional ride of the rest of the record. Here, there’s a much stronger sense of filling time — only two tracks later we get the eight-minute plus “Sol y Sombra,” which even on its own jammy, noisy, atonal terms feels a bit pointless.
If it is beyond the capacity of the human mind to truly understand itself, then the alchemy of creativity is the most mysterious conundrum we will ever face — and no one understands it less than the person creating. Woods, and particularly Earl, in his clear leadership not just of the band but of an entire cadre of bands through the Woodsist label, seem to be going through some sort of down period, running short on both energy and inventiveness. Does he know it? Does it keep him up at night? Does he endlessly run through lists of things that he might change to get back that old spark? Or am I projecting?
The best moments of Sun and Shade make hay from the different mood, rather than trying to fight it. “Wouldn’t Waste” trades in the buzzsaw reference of Rust Never Sleeps for the gothic depths of Roscoe Holcomb, and “Who Do I Think I Am?” while plenty melodic, opts for a gentle shuffle. The album’s last song, “Say Goodbye,” comes closest to recapturing the melodic inventiveness of Songs of Shame, but does it with extreme restraint and ends up feeling half-finished. If it’s hard to change, sometimes it’s even harder to accept changes that are out of our control. Woods are not the same reeling unit of earth-scorchers they were two years ago, though they may be that again at some point or move onto become something different. I just wish I could stop beating myself up about it in the meantime.