Dean Wareham has always seemed to have an uncomfortable relationship with his past. Ever since he dissolved Galaxie 500 in 1989, each new project of his came with a crowd of disapproving nostalgists who would rather have him go back to doing what he was doing before. Wareham’s undoubtedly aware of this, as each project he’s undertaken since then has been a reaction to the last. But something funny happened last year: Wareham seemed to allow himself and his fans a moment of nostalgic indulgence, one that he claims was the last he’ll ever do. In that context, Emancipated Hearts—the first collection of music Wareham has released under his own name—takes on an interesting meaning as the first bit of music where the indie icon sounds comfortable with his oeuvre.
Right from the outset of the mini-album, it’s clear that Wareham’s recent trip down memory lane had a greater effect on him that many anticipated. For years, Wareham has fended off inevitable comparisons between his projects and Galaxie 500: no one quite has his unmistakable singing voice, and Galaxie’s reputation has only grown as time has passed. Emancipated Hearts invites those comparisons, though, and not for superficial reasons. Wareham’s songs here bear structural resemblances to Galaxie 500. Wareham has returned to the deceptively simple songwriting style of his past, allowing the songs to breathe and expand in the studio without having to say too much. It’s a technique that works, and Wareham does it better than any songwriter currently working. Thus, moments like “The Longest Bridges In The World” and “Emancipated Hearts” unfold slowly into things of beauty, using their simplicity as a foundation for sonic exploration. At its best, Emancipated Hearts sounds like a return to form, a sign that Wareham is going back to what he does better than anyone else.
That’s not to say that the record is a thinly-disguised Galaxie 500 record, though. Wareham may be returning to some past comforts, but he’s certainly not interested in making the same music that he made in his 20s. There’s a world-weariness to Emancipated Hearts that only comes with age, and Wareham’s the kind of songwriter who is nothing but honest about where his head is at any given point. Much of the record is tinged with a sort of aging melancholy, such as the lead single “Love Is Colder Than Death”. It’s a refreshing perspective, but it’s one that doesn’t lend itself to much variation, and Emancipated Hearts does become slightly monotonous as a result. The album also suffers from a production job that emphasizes making the instruments sound as crisp as possible, which ends up giving Wareham’s hazy collection of songs a clarity that they don’t really need.
Many of the gripes that people might have about Emancipated Hearts will probably be the same gripes that people had about Luna or Dean & Britta or anything else Dean Wareham has done that isn’t exactly what everyone wants. Given Wareham’s track record, he’s unlikely to care much about those sorts of criticisms. Quite frankly, if he keeps making records like Emancipated Hearts, that’s fine with me.