Whatever was being bottled up in that house in New Jersey is getting ready to explode. The Wrens are onstage, drummer Jerry MacDonell and bassist Kevin Whelan singing together on “The House That Guilt Built”. It’s the lamentation for lost time and for all the places that we end up that opens The Meadowlands, the Wrens’ much applauded return to active duty in the world of indie-rock after an almost seven-year hiatus. Calling the album triumphant feels like only part of the story. It’s passionate and it’s not embarrassed. It’s heroic, not just because the band had to make wild sacrifices and overcome personal and business-related obstacles in order to see the thing through to completion the way that they intended—that’s the story of a lot of people’s lives—but mostly because it was all worth it. Lots of musicians, and artists in general, work day jobs and fight to make space for what they love, but few produce results that are this good, this alive. Jerry makes his way behind his silver sparkle Ludwigs and the bands begins ripping into “Everyone Choose Sides”, with guitarist Charles Bissel burying his face into his microphone, singing “Rough luck / Man to man, hand to hand, fight forty / We’re losing sand! / A Wrens’ ditch battle plan”.
In conversation (they’re gracious and easy to talk with, laughing and joking easily and often) they make it clear that none of this has really gone according to any kind of plan that they may have ever had. In 1996, critical favorites after releasing their second album, Secaucus, they were poised and eager to move on to bigger successes. Things began coming apart after then-label Grass Records pressed the band to sign back on with a multi-album, million-dollar contract. They refused and the label abruptly ceased all promotion and support for the then-still-current Secaucus.
They re-grouped and began recording dozens of demos for various lawyers and A&R people. They released the Abbott 1135 EP in 1997, a collection of songs that were the best of that bunch, and continued to tour and demo throughout most of 1998. They went away to begin recording a full-length, and in January of 1999 work commenced on the album that they thought, at the time, would take just a few months. After the first few weeks, Chuck Scott, the one friend that they had helping with the recording, was forced to move on to other projects, and from that point on the band was entirely on its own.
By spring of that year they had lost their direction, lost their ability to make decisions, and no longer knew what kind of album they even wanted to make. Finishing The Meadowlands ended up taking them four more years. “The four-year stretch just kind of happened,” says Bissell. “We really thought we’d be done quick and we actually kind of were in that first spring; five months into it the album was more or less done and we’d even gone back and changed songs and re-recorded them. As it was beginning to wind-up, that’s when we were beginning to look around, and it was like, ‘None of us really like this,’ or, ‘How did we end up here when we thought we were some place else?’”
Surrounded constantly by their equipment, they recorded in the same house where they all lived, they went about re-arranging, re-writing, and re-recording all of the songs around the already recorded drum parts. Says Bissell, “It was the dumbest way to do it. We stuck with those 15 songs or whatever and whittled them down over those four years so almost no song is the same way that we played it in the basement and it was originally recorded except for the drum parts. So some of the songs changed radically but the drums stayed the same.” Ultimately, he says it was, “an intellectual game of chasing your own ass.” It was a rare weekend that went by where at least some work wasn’t done on the album. Adds Kevin, “Its hard to explain to anybody. We had to take some little breaks, but at least the guilt and everything was over top of us every night.”
Throughout the process they kept the album from feeling obsessed over, explains guitarist Greg Whelan, “by obsessing over it and working over it.” The over-arching rule was that it just had to feel good. They listened to the album hundreds and hundreds of times and if, after all of that, they still felt like the song was having an impact, they knew that they were close to their mark. “It’s an important part as a musician, or whatever you’re doing, is the ability to self-edit,” says Bissell. “I think at one time we had that, though our sensibilities were different a long time ago. After Secaucus, until we started this one, or through the first half of it, we lost it, or weren’t really sure. You have to know what you want to begin with, and then you can see more clearly whether you’re hitting it or not.”
“One of the things we learned in those four years . . . every choice you make, the reverb that’s around the snare, the tone of the kick drum, aren’t just geek decisions; they’re geek only in your ability to know what kind of effect they’ll have. For the listener, they each have a different effect and those decisions are so crucial,” says Bissell. “If we’d known it was going to take four years we would have gone back into the basement and set up the mics and redone the drums, but each time we thought we were two months away, and that went on for 60 months.” When it was all over, to celebrate the album’s completion, they erased the master tapes.
Ultimately, the process allowed the band to be able to exert a much greater amount of control and claim responsibility for their sound in a way that few bands can, or even would want to. It’s what allows them to claim every hard won win on the record as their own and not have it sound false. For an album that was so meticulously combed over and lived with for so long, The Meadowlands never sounds stale or obsessive. For the lyrics, which they admit took as much time to put together as the music, each writer would go off to work and then submit the results to the others for criticism. The vocals are difficult to make out in that great way, and they don’t always seem to add up until you see them in context. They dredge up things you feel but don’t think you can talk about, they include our parenthetical ideas and the conversations we have with ourselves and pay attention to things that we only think passed us by. They’re about life’s little failures and give-ups, but they’re also about the way that these events add up to more than that because we’ve come out on the other side.
Some publications have welcomed the band back like an old friend, creating a buzz that’s come from journalists being genuinely interested in the band and not from any kind of pre-arranged media blitz. Features on the band have been run in the New Yorker and the New York Times, and Pitchfork Media gave the album a 9.5 out of 10. In addition, Magnet Magazine named The Meadowlands number 53 in their Top 60 Albums of the Past Ten Years list. While it’s tough to really be able to properly judge how The Meadowlands is going to hold up—though it figures to hold up just fine—part of the point is how excited people are getting over it. It makes you excited like early R.E.M. still can, even if you can’t say you were there way back when. The 1,000-CD first pressing, hand-numbered and shipped with covers lithographed by the band, was available from the Absolutely Kosher website beginning in the spring and sold out right around the time of the album’s official release. Its catalog number is Absolutely Kosher 9, the number originally assigned to the album when the label agreed to release it (in the years between then and the time that the album actually came out, the label released over 20 records and went from a part-time to a full-time operation.)
The Meadowlands is catchy, but it’s not just pop; it’s substantial and carefully thought-out and figures to stick around. And while it may not hit with much of an audience or end up being one of those albums that looms over everything that comes after it for a while, it stands as accomplishment in and of itself. This is a part of its self-contained appeal, part of what makes you root for the band instead of begrudging them their success. Maybe because they were so far removed for all those years making it, The Meadowlands comes across almost as a universe unto itself. It’s a rock album that gets better the more you play it instead of sounding instantly worn out or redundant, and there are no tricks to mask deficiencies in the writing. Though some of the songs grab you straight out, “This Boy Is Exhausted” being at the head of that class, nothing is as memorable as Secaucus‘s “Built in Girls”, and that’s fine. Compare the crickets that open The Meadowlands to the blast of “Yellow Number Three” that throws you into Secaucus. The Meadowlands is necessarily grown-up, less reliant on getting attention to get by, and it gets better and more involving the longer that you live with it.
You can see it in a lot of the reviews for the album. One quotes only from “She Sends Kisses”. Another mercilessly trashes that song in favor of “Hopeless”. One blasts “This Is Not What You Had Planned”, but falls over “13 Months in 6 Minutes”. One swears by “Faster Gun”, another by “Per Second Second”. Me, I’ll take “Everyone Chooses Sides”. But, that being said, four weeks ago I wrote to the band to tell them that I thought “Happy” was the best song I’d heard all year. It’s tough to pick a standout song, I think, because the whole album fits together by design. Your head will be turned by details you may have missed the first few times (the album’s multiple layers are quietly constructed); some may not seem as exciting as they did at first and others will feel even more telling.
After having suffered through the pressures and losses of the past seven years and labored on their album in practical anonymity, the Wrens have hit the ground running. “It’s more fun doing it now than ever,” says Kevin. “It’s so unbelievably cool. After that many years to come out and meet so many nice people who get it and not have all that shit hanging over your head.” On this particular night in Boston, they get called back for an encore (“Very flattering” they wrote to me later) and they leave the stage looking genuinely enthused and glad to be back. “It feels like we’re on top of our game in a way we haven’t been in at least 10 years . . . since we started the band more or less,” says Bissell. “Of course,” he adds, “it’s easy to say that not having followed the record up.”