What is it about the presence of higher production values, tighter songwriting, and a little discretion in the way of smeary effects that always seems to say “sophomore slump” to some people? These qualities stand out to me when comparing Gemini to Wild Nothing’s new album Nocturne, but I have a hard time seeing this as negative.
Gemini came around at the right time, just a hair later than swaths of similar bands, sufficiently obscure at the time and broadly representative of the trend as a whole that Wild Nothing was able to ride the album to the top of year-end lists. Jack Tatum said in an interview with Pitchfork, “At first, it shot up to a point that I totally wasn’t ready for — it was like an exponential weed. And people treated me as if I was an established musician. I wasn’t.”
One reviewer praised Tatum’s “homeopathic” approach to melody on the last album, that by subsuming them in a mess of other things, it made multiple listenings more rewarding. This is a trendy aesthetic idea, but a tough thing to actually pull off, and when most reviewers write about it, they’re trying to convince themselves as much as their readers that it’s a desirable quality. I wouldn’t want to oversell the contrast as some reviewers have, but if Gemini was a so-called “bedroom pop” album, the product of Tatum dreamily assembling the musical qualities he liked, Nocturne betrays no hint of that amateurish approach. None. At all.
Tatum’s biggest accomplishment is that Nocturne can’t really be measured against the high expectations everyone had for his follow-up. He’s adopted a cerebral approach to these songs; simple as they are, they have a directness that people don’t expect from music like this. Platonic almost, like Stephin Merritt’s writing. Living up to his platform’s reputation for insincere dismissals, the reviewer in Vice referred to a “blankness to his vibe,” man.
“Counting Days” is probably simplest, a straight-up love song with a dance-pop groove and inconsequential lyrics that’s impossible not to like (chorus: “You wanna make me spin/ You wanna hold me in”). Tatum’s lower-register singing and the vaguely exotic synthetic winds reminded me of that great 1980s dark new wave band Secession. Or to be glib: This must be what shoegaze sounds like without the drugs. You know, uptempo and with dynamic interest.
Structurally, the twang is in the front, the strange is in the back. The first three songs feature trebly guitar hooks amid a less homogenous but still thick background texture — not quite The Byrds, but definitely in Mojave 3 territory. “Shadow” kicks off the album, pairing a lazy Slowdive-like melody with a straight-ahead beat. But the synth textures in the last four recall Peter Gabriel, and unlike the exuberant primary-color melodies of Gemini, they move. “Paradise” has the vaguely tropical feel of neo-exoticists like Yeasayer or Future Islands. “The Blue Dress” takes the same theme a bit too far.
In between are relatively straightforward pop numbers, including “Only Heather,” “This Chain Won’t Break,” and my favorite track on the album, “Disappear Always.” In addition to having a deliriously catchy, somewhat hackneyed guitar hook, it manages to capture a certain directionless millenial melancholy with lines like, “Call someone up/ Just to have a drink/ And talk about anything, I don’t care,” and “Get out of the house/ For an hour or two/ But it’s missing something I can’t explain.”
If you’re already convinced there are too many “gauzy,” “ethereal,” “vaporous” albums like this, there’s nothing I can do to change your mind. But not only is Nocturne one of the most consistently excellent pop records I’ve heard this year, it’s also a remarkably mature statement for an artist whose first album was recorded in his Blacksburg dorm room in 2010. This is Jack Tatum’s Platonic pop record, and if it doesn’t meet the expectations of critics, for lack of soupy textures or the rough edges of home recording or whatever, it’s because he exceeded them.