At the beginning of Civilian, you can hear the din of people. They shuffle around, their voices muffled, incoherent—just a crowd, some faceless noise. Once opener “Two Small Deaths” starts, however, it introduces a thick fog of atmospherics that acts as a border of sorts. The swell gets cut with sharp guitar notes, with the snap of rim taps, but it’s clear early on: for this record, Wye Oak is breaking away. Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack are entering isolation to surround themselves in this sprawling sound. As it turns out, the solitary suits them well.
In the bunch of great new bands coming out of Merge Records—Telekinesis, the Love Language, Let’s Wrestle, Apex Manor, etc.—Wye Oak may be the most versatile, the hardest to pin down. 2008’s If Children was an ever-shifting collection of gauzy pop songs, while 2009’s The Knot cohered more as a whole, built on the capillary-action swell of blurry guitars and subtle but hefty atmospherics—not to mention Wasner’s breathy vocals. Now, with Civilian, they have meshed the focus of their last record with the restlessness of their debut, moving around in different textures without ever losing sight of the album’s overall feel.
For a duo, Wasner and Stack make an inexplicably big noise, but its size never overwhelms. There are still holes in the songs, room for texture, for variations. While the hazy atmosphere on this record picks up where The Knot left off, Civilian packs a more immediate punch, and hits you with southpaw jabs in the middle of songs, shifting once you’ve bedded down. It’s jarring at first, but every change seems perfectly suited to the track. “Holy Holy” doesn’t build to its chorus so much as the lofty sound of it bursts out of the song, unable to be held back. “Plains” stumbles along, bleary-eyed and beautiful, until its chorus quickly blows up with crashing cymbals and ringing guitars, only to deflate back into the space of the tracks. “Dog Eyes” goes from warbling, pointed riffs—that deftly channel Polvo’s sound without repeating it—but it devolves into grinding guitar squalls before righting itself. The title track is more unassuming, with the light, country-touched glide of the guitar, but slowly and surely the song grows and roils, until all of a sudden it’s on top of you like a late-summer thunderstorm.
The versatility of their sound comes in Wasner and Stack’s ability to act as counterpoints to each other. Wasner’s vocals are emotive and rangy, but also haunted by a barely-there smoke. Her guitar playing, with its subtle intricacies, echoes out into any space around it. Andy Stack, meanwhile, bridges the gap with some quietly fundamental keyboards and other flourishes that offer shadows to Wasner’s already deep sounds. His drumming, though, is both off-kilter and precise, dynamic but never showy. It drives the songs on, and his playing here is even better than his great work on the past records. At this point, in fact, this side of the National’s Bryan Defendorf, he may be the most distinct drummer around, the one most deeply connected to his band’s sound.
There is a tension running through independent music today between atmosphere and melody. Bands seem to be pushing to see how hazy things can get until they fall apart—giving birth to bullshit not-really-genres like chillwave and witch house. Wye Oak is too good a band to fall into such one-dimensional ruts. They like the atmosphere and lay it on, thick yet carefully, but they also know the power of a hook, of a carefully phrased line, of dealing in intricacy without losing immediacy in the bargain. At the beginning of “Hot as Day”—maybe the best song here—Wasner’s words tumble out, “When the sun is at its most bright…” In some ways, whatever comes next—hopeful or heartbreaking—doesn’t matter. Her delivery is frayed in just the right way, the words building to from the soft n’s to the hard t’s, from unnoticeable to concrete and full of possibility. It’s a quick moment of careful detail that sets a whole brilliant song in motion, and it’s far from the only moment like that on this record. Perhaps the best thing about these highlights, too, is that this feels like Wye Oak just realizing its strength, that the next thing the band comes up with will somehow top this the way Civilian tops the beauty of The Knot.
As a non-military term, “civilian” can mean an outsider, one not part of some chosen group. Wasner and Stack step outside that room of people we hear clattering away at the album’s start, and rather than gaze at their shoes (I don’t care how much the guitars buzz here) and pout, they create their own sonic world, one you may want join yourself once you dig into its layers. They’re solitary, set apart, no doubt about it—but they’re also awfully comforting.