Archer Prewitt is the worst kind of overachiever—the artistic overachiever. As if it’s not bad enough that there are people out there who handle diverse tasks with apparent ease, there are people like Prewitt who not only tend to the obligations of everyday life, but also create engaging art in various mediums. Not only does Prewitt hold down duties as guitarist for indie icons the Sea and Cake, he is also an accomplished graphic illustrator; the third issue of his Sof’ Boy comic series was published last July. Then there’s the little solo thing he does on the side, the EPs and albums that have earned Prewitt virtually unfaltering critical acclaim. Add to this that he is respected in each of the circles he dabbles in. How does that make you feel for never finishing that novel? You knew darn well you’d never finish it anyways…
Sarcasm aside, Prewitt has amassed an impressive body of solo work. Wilderness, his fourth full-length solo release, builds upon the merits of his earlier works. The sound on this album is classic chamber pop: forlorn acoustic arrangements embellished with carefully-textured layers of strings, horns, and percussion. This isn’t, however, to imply that this album is thick, dense, or cumbersome; on the contrary, the songs are comparable to an impressionist painting—spare and light, while simultaneously employing a wide array of colors and textures. Here, Prewitt combines the low-key melancholia of Nick Drake with the symphonic aspirations of Brian Wilson. In the end, the former keeps the latter from becoming too lush for its own sake.
Overall, this album is marked by a dark, mournful, and haunting feel. Prewitt’s work has often been described as possessing an “autumnal” quality, and as tired as this adjective is when describing his songs, it is fitting. Stark and implicitly bleak, these songs feel like the end of a period in one’s life. “O, KY”, for example, deals with the death of Prewitt’s father, and the lyrics are ruminative in nature: “People tell me all the time / Watch your back and watch the signs…” Prewitt often sings in a falsetto, which possesses the gothic eeriness of David Bowie, sounding at turns pained and taunting. In “Think Again”, the topic is lost love and the debilitating effects it has on the mind. “You’re feeling that there’s something wrong,” Prewitt sings, “With your days and your nights.” This keen, depressing insight is followed with the blunt line “Love’s evaded you”. Later in the song, the narrator muses “Now that you’re gone / I know what I meant to say.” Again, the word autumnal is fitting, as the narrators in the songs are forced to move out of brighter eras and into darker phases of their lives.
Musically, Wilderness is understated but expressive. While the instrumentation here goes way beyond the standard rock setup (vibes, mellotron, stylophone, bells, organ, violin, cello, saxophone, trombone ), Prewitt’s arrangements are both concentrated and restrained, so that the musical adornments never sound frivolous or overwhelming. Indeed, most of these songs follow a formula, beginning with folk-style strumming and picking, then gaining subtle layers of instrumentation that serve to underscore the lyrics. “No More”, for example, begins with just Prewitt’s voice and an acoustic guitar, but spare piano notes and swelling strings—placed at key moments—soon join the mix. As the narrator intones, “Everyone, keep it down / Cause I can’t hear a word / Little one, please come home / Cause I can’t face the world,” a series of single bell tones rings in the background. This seems to be Prewitt’s approach—to enthrall through subtlety rather than bombast.
Wilderness does, however, have it weak spots, namely that it drowns within its own sound after awhile. While Prewitt makes use of a diverse range of instruments, each song is somber and reflective in tone, which is a bit like never opening the blinds on a sunny day—at times, you simply want to break out of the self-imposed dreariness. Indeed, halfway through the album, you want Prewitt to can the vibes and cellos and pick up the tempo. This is perhaps an unfair complaint, though, as you can’t really fault an artist for creating a mood they set out to achieve. There is, however, an often huge difference between appreciating and enjoying, and there are moments within this album where that distinction is made clear.
On the whole, however, Wilderness is an accomplished, mature work from a man more concerned with creating an enduring work of art than a fashionable product. Prewitt is completely uninterested in current musical trends, and instead chooses to combine the more enduring elements of the past. The result is an album that envelops and permeates, leaving the listener both mystified and slightly disturbed.