Widowspeak Expect the Best

[Captured Tracks; 2017]

Styles: Americana, shoegaze, dream pop
Others: Mazzy Star, Westworld

The great marvel of the past is how malleable its shape becomes in the hands of both artists and revisionists, abrading the old guard, chipping away at stubborn monoliths until they give out, easy as sand through the fingers. Brooklyn’s own Widowspeak are riddled with ghosts, hovering between each breath, every reverb-soaked gesture. HBO’s stylish adaptation of Westworld provides several useful pointers, particularly for art that wears its former lives on its sleeves and especially for those who — on perhaps a cruder, more literal level — provide an artificial American frontier as the graveyard for their own hauntology.

On Expect the Best, Widowspeak retain the sepia rinse of their first three albums, though their self-proclaimed “cowboy grunge” leans closer to the latter for the first time since 2011’s debut. Nonetheless, there’s a light that shines through every bullet hole. “In the past,” Molly Hamilton says, “I’ve felt compelled to write songs that are more optimistic than I’m actually feeling, as if I could make it true, as if everything in the past was significant or beautiful in a way, even if it was painful.” What provides the most joy here are the songs that adhere to the classic pop trope of bright melodies and dark lyrics, though they’re conservatively spread across the record’s 35 minutes. Instead, the light in Hamilton’s songwriting dims from the warm candlelight of “All Yours” to the lonely, flickering ember of a single match.

Inevitably, the Mazzy Star comparisons begin to retreat as the distortion rises, though opener “The Dream” pitches for a narcotic dream pop that’s about as close to Santa Monica as they’ve ever been. It’s also one of their finest moments, a gorgeous slow-burner that details Hamilton’s exhaustion with her own wanderlust. (“Isn’t that the American dream?” she asks, and the question feels neither entirely sarcastic nor rhetorical.) The singer spent some time living back in her dad’s house after the last album, immersing herself in 90s TV and music. And this is where we arrive: nostalgia for an older form of nostalgia, for a time when appropriating the past still felt like an indulgence.

Several modern Americana-influenced artists — Marissa Nadler, Juanita Stein, even (or especially) Lana Del Rey — are now so engrossed in their own Westworld-style dress-up, it’s often hard to tell where cutesy homage ends and cultural appropriation begins. Stein has been the worst offender this year: bold enough to call her new album America, yet crass enough to fill it with dreary lines about saloon damsels and bourbon (“I can take a little heartbreak if I get to wear that blue dress”). For the most part, it’s something that Widowspeak thankfully sidestep, especially on a record that’s more in thrall to shoegaze than anything else.

But for a band clearly so capable of crafting a “Fade Into You” if they wanted to — and they’ve come close several times in the past — they often seem determined to slum it, more so than ever on Expect the Best. “Let Me” and “Right On” are both somewhat disposable, highlighted by their positioning between the charming aside of “Good Sport” and the title track that gifts the record its first real grunge home run. As ever, the Brooklyn four-piece triumph when they succumb to the dreamier elements of their work, of which Expect the Best carries just enough to sustain the listener across the finish line. In spite of any lingering cynicism toward the craft, Widowspeak remain capable of producing magic, if only when the mood takes them.

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