Pussy said to the Owl “You elegant fowl,
How charmingly sweet you sing.
O let us be married, too long we have tarried;
But what shall we do for a ring?”
—From the Owl and the Pussycat, by Edward Lear
There is an excellent new record released early in October (The Noise Company) by the Austin-based group Wild Child called The Runaround. In a year tragically replete with the failures of ambitious projects by well-funded and well-known artists, it’s comforting to find success on the second offering of a group that went largely overlooked on their first release.
Such is the nature of the music industry. Music television channels have been a joke for the better part of two decades and neither is there much to be discovered listening to the radio. The increasing homogenization of American culture has created a polarized musical landscape lacking a middle ground of legitimate artistic expression. While national level acts churn out bland balladry in anticipation of mass appeal, working musicians become more inclined to produce bizarre amalgamations of purposely disparate sounds in imitation of sophistication. There is no reason to despair, though. A mother lode of good music exists, but like anything precious to find it you’ll have to dig beneath the accumulated debris of surface material.
The perfect pop song shouldn’t be such a mystery. Any example of popular music done well displays a seemingly effortless combination of emotional purity in lyrics and vocal delivery combined with a pleasing, repetitive musical accompaniment. As with nursery rhymes (perhaps the most enduring genre of pop) the ultimate aesthetic can be found in well-delineated, proportioned simplicity. But the devil is in the details, and when those details detract from the symmetry of a song—say, if the vocals, lyrics, or music are forced or disingenuous—then the emotional impact of the song as a whole dissolves.
For a group that won’t likely sell much of a record you’ll likely never listen to, Wild Child’s The Runaround finds success where so many others have failed. Lesser critics are fond of calling this album “innocent”. A precursory listen would qualify this statement. Indeed, there is an easy going simplicity to the preferred method of string arrangement which recalls one to the lullaby, the nursery rhyme. It doesn’t help much that main vocalist Kelly Wilson’s vocal delivery is shudderingly emphatic and uncompromising in its loveliness. Wilson’s voice is a sweet glass of water to one dying of thirst in this impersonal world. But to characterize the entire album based on such immediate perceptions means a lot of those critics haven’t been doing their jobs.
Indie pop is in the midst of its heyday. Related groups like Cocoon, the Lumineers and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros have elevated a form of music from the main street coffee house to the mainstream common household name. Though Wild Child might be a little late to the game, The Runaround displays the duality of innocence mixed with conflict that has propelled those other groups to exalted success. One look at the contrasting nature of the Andersonesque album cover goes lengths to foreshadow the sonic journey contained within. On it the child representations of the Wild Child’s core group, Alexander Beggins and Wilson, are surrounded by wolves in a forest clearing set in front of a rustic, dilapidated structure.
Love songs, like reminiscence on childhood, can be beautiful. Love, like childhood, is a very messy affair that can entail negative lifelong repercussions. And while outwardly The Runaround resembles the former, a deeper inspection reveals a truth closer to the latter. Album single “Crazy Bird”‘s whistled chorus and uptempo beat would imply the honeymoon stage of any romantic encounter. However the lyrics describe something darker. There is something sick and desperate concerning any relationship of command. There is love present, sure, but along with that highest of emotions floods a current of lesser sentiments: jealousy, distrust, obsession and resentment. Album opener “Living Tree” follows similar themes, detailing the path of love’s pleasure turned sour and describing how the emotion that was meant to set the protagonist free rooted her to a very unpleasant spot.
The Runaround isn’t all gloom. Like many fairy tales, the themes explored over its 11 tracks relate grand concepts—love, passion, discovery and connection—while the narrative path encounters more desultory settings. It is pointless to tell a story without telling it well, and so it should come as no surprise the overall production value on the record is superb. Much like the Head and the Heart, Wild Child has transitioned in the space of a single album from rustic, homespun intimacy to opulent, lush orchestration. What separates the two is the means to these ends. Whereas the Head and the Heart were supplied ample resources to create a failed magnum opus, Wild Child crowdsourced the production of The Runaround to create a sleeper giant.
Will the underdog win in this situation? Probably not. The music industry is about the furthest thing from a fairy tale or children’s poem you could ever encounter. It has no memory, no allegiance and no faith in the promise of better things to come. If it weren’t for Wild Child’s fans, The Runaround wouldn’t exist. This alone is proof the world isn’t as bleak as we often like to believe it is. There is color in this existence, there is hope in every struggle, and there is some mote of truth in every nursery rhyme. Wild Child reminds us lest we forget, “Merrily merrily merrily / Life is but a dream.”