I used to avoid the Wedding Present because I’d heard the band was ‘jangle pop’, which didn’t prepare me at all for the sonic and emotional brutality of Bizarro, let alone Seamonsters, the band’s Steve Albini-assisted slash and burn apotheosis. David Gedge is pretty much the poet laureate of guys who do things they know they shouldn’t, while they know they shouldn’t. The Wedding Present’s songs are nearly always perched on the precipice between self-laceration and wish fulfillment, and if Gedge’s narrator isn’t cheating on someone or considering how to avoid mentioning his girlfriend, he’s trying to withdraw a stupid ultimatum he made or realising he was just being used for sex. When he’s acting in good faith, she’s lying, and vice versa. It would be easier to feel sorry for Gedge if he didn’t play the villain half the time.
Which is, to be clear, part of why the Wedding Present is such an institution. Although you wouldn’t want to wind up trapped in the world of Gedge’s songs (and one hopes, despite the unavoidable urge to identify the narrator with the singer, that Gedge himself isn’t), we’ve all had moments where love seems just as much sordid as wonderful, where we find ourselves acting while the rational part of our brains screams at us to stop—we are all, in short, sometimes ruled by lust, envy, anger, pride. Couple Gedge’s keen and heartfelt grasp of these topics with an engine room that still (despite numerous line-up changes) can marry, yes, some jangle with enough fury for ten metal bands, and you’ve got something to be proud of. In this way, at least, David Gedge is somewhat like fellow Northener Mark E. Smith: as long as both have a band sufficiently skilled and enthusiastic, it seems as if they need never stop, that they have an endless, effortless supply of songs in their respective styles.
Albini is back for El Rey, from the title and the neon pink-and-purple art on down a California-based record, and while nothing is as punishing as “Blonde” or “Dalliance”, he gives the new band a bit of the edge that was missing from the admittedly lovely Take Fountain (which was going to be a Cinerama album at first). The setting is a bit weird for the Wedding Present, except that Gedge has been living in West Hollywood for the last year. It does sneak into the songs a bit (“Spider-Man on Hollywood” uses movie props so Gedge can be passive aggressive about you breaking up with him; the manipulative story-song “Don’t Take Me Home Until I’m Drunk” just fits LA better than anywhere else), but mostly Gedge is just going to be Gedge wherever he is. Context can be interpolated into the songs in interesting ways (and not just the Hollywood thing—try listening to the heartfelt “Boo Boo” and its cry of “The reason I called is that I still love you” and see if you can avoid wondering how Sally Murrell is doing these days), but it doesn’t restrict these songs any more than when Seamonsters started dropping references to Loch Ness.
Instead, we have the latest set of variations on Gedge’s old-as-the-hills subject matter, kept eternally fresh by human nature. Gedge is still the kind of guy who will A.) write a song about gazing lustfully at a picture of a girl (Maxim, porn, whatever), B.) title that song “Model, Actress, Whatever…”, and C.) spend the chorus rhapsodizing about the power of her eyes. And throughout El Rey, he is constantly meeting new women he wishes he could ignore, getting dumped, fretting about the state of his relationship or his girlfriend’s fidelity, and so on. “The Thing I Like Best About Him Is His Girlfriend” is a paradigmatic song title for the Weddoes at this point, but after a two-minute intro, the band launches into what seems pro forma… until the girlfriend pipes up, courtesy of bassist Terry De Castro: “If he heard what you just said, he’d be completely devastated.” Gedge’s world is still rife with heartbreak and caddish behaviour, the one feeding the other, but he’s gotten a lot better at making it clear that he’s aware of the cost.
In fact, “I Lost the Monkey” is so dangerous precisely because under the compacted roar of the band, Gedge sings so quietly and tenderly about fucking up so bad she’s left him, where once he would have just roared. “Palisades” could be Gedge going back to tell us what being on the other side of “Rotterdam” from Seamonsters felt like, but it also might be the sinking feeling of having the tables turned on you in general—a sensation that pervades El Rey. For once, when he sings “You don’t love me anymore”, there’s no real anger or accusation to it—just sadness and an inkling that she might not be the problem. The Wedding Present has matured a little, although it was always painfully self-aware (and that was always kind of the point), but Gedge and company have been through this kind of thing enough that it’s harder to be self-righteous about it.
All of this probably makes El Rey sound like a painful trudge to the non-fan, but that’s just because I haven’t yet mentioned Gedge’s songcraft, which started out excellent (there’s a reason “A Million Miles” or “My Favourite Dress” still sting after all those years) and has only improved with age. No matter how fraught or heartbroken these stories get, each is gifted with an indelible chorus, and even the few tracks of sort-of filler like “Soup” (boasting both a catchphrase from Seinfeld and a weird, quasi-doom metal coda) are performed with enough verve and energy that El Rey zips by. Between this and Take Fountain, it’s great to have Gedge back, giving us 45 minutes or so every couple of years of solid, affecting songs so that the faithful can once again return to the world he creates, one that’s painful but satisfying to be part of some of the time. Just like real heartbreak.