When one of Felix Mendelssohn’s friends approached the romantic composer about setting his Songs without Words to text, he refused not because he wanted to protect their abstraction, but because their wordlessness gave them, in his mind, a more powerful immediacy. Indeed, it is the task of the instrumental composer, from the mixing board to the film score, to make her music expressive without the use of concrete meaning made possible by lyrics. Wordless music, at its best, evolves its own language of feeling without resorting to mathematical correspondences or empty suggestiveness.
Delicate Steve’s debut album, Wondervisions, treads beautifully this line between meaningless emotion and unfeeling precision. The band’s eponym is one Steve Marion, a multi-instrumentalist from New Jersey who, according to an idiosyncratic press release by Chuck Klosterman, professes an interest in all things unusual and wants his music to last “substantially longer than forever”. The group is signed to David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label. With such hip pop-culture icons as their champions, it would be easy to lose sight of the music itself in the mirage of ironic hyperbole and smug quirk. Wondervisions comprises 12 tracks of melodic post-pop that is at once eccentric, literate and airy. Marion’s guitar sings—it’s the only word—gracefully over the band’s bubbly, pattering textures. These are, to put it plainly, songs without words.
Marion has a knack for the lyrical, and his lines often cross deftly with the keyboard, bass and drums as they make their way towards their collective destination. “Flyin’ High”, the album’s closing track, is as smart and talkative as Delicate Steve gets. The title is quiet enough to paint the listener a picture. After a quiet, methodical prelude from the bass, second guitar and keyboards, Marion cuts in with an ecstatic, triumphant, screechingly distorted riff. The repeated phrase converges with denser, louder harmonies until it reaches a kind of maximal, elevated plateau. The concluding fade out is the only imaginable resolution—it feels more like the music is disappearing into the distance than sinking into the depths.
Most of the tracks here are founded on a central motif, a moment of truth. It’s the outright musicality of Marion’s guitar that gives Wondervisions its mute eloquence. “The Ballad of Speck and Pebble”, “Sugar Splash” and “Butterfly” all contain a kernel of emotion that shines unmistakably in the definitive, revealing passages. Tracks like these are broken up by noisy, playful transitions with cheekily punctuated names like “Source ((Connection))” and “Source ((Construction))”. The album taken as a whole thus blends fantasy and abstraction with structure and exposition. It’s where the two qualities meet that Wondervisions sometimes loses its luster. The band is prone to shift from one idea to another without sufficient sign or reason. More than one of the songs here could easily be two. With a more restrained sense of progression, the album would gain in elegance what it might lose in flair.
That exchange would suit Delicate Steve perfectly, for the outfit’s overwhelming strength is its ready, subtle articulateness. It is easy to see why the notion of a “wondervision” struck the group as representative. Tracks like “Attitude/Gratitude” and “Wondervisions” itself are delightful, self-contained images painted in bold and thoughtful strokes. The precise subject of these visions is hard to say—it is, quite simply, the kind of thing you do not describe with words.