Concept albums just might be making a comeback. Green Day cleaned up big time with their recent epic, American Idiot, and Outkast have just re-entered the scene with their prohibition-era inspired Idlewild. Perhaps pop songs are not going to be just pop songs anymore. On their debut album, White Whale bring us a nautical adventure as seen by four guys from the middle of Kansas, as land-locked as can be. Built around nautical ideas and themes, WWI is a multi-layered indie rock epic packed with quirky characters, intricate verses, and grand theatrics. It’s absolutely a cohesive theme that ties the entire package of the album together: the vastness of the ocean, the romance of the grand voyage, and expansive exploration are all inspirations felt behind each of the songs, and the vivid illustrations included in the album’s artwork. Even the tone of the band’s bio is included as a part of their seafaring package: “Beware ye Decembersits and those who set the Arcade (a)Fire, the Okkervil River cannot contain the enormity of White Whale. Vast, Boundless, seemingly Serene yet untamed. Where Wind meets water, White Whale is born.”
While not particularly informative, the word games here are a good indication of what listeners will find on record. Songwriter and frontman Matt Suggs has a reputation for wry lyrics and sweeping melodies, and it certainly follows him here. Suggs’s writing style tends to the grandiose, with several tracks on the album building from humble beginnings into sprawling epics. In general, it pushes the theme of the record, but the predictable sprawl of each track grows a bit tired at times. Some tracks feel like they’re practically bursting at the seams with overflowing ideas and drawn-out narratives: the album’s second song is almost an exhausting eight minutes long. It’s the typical theatrics in Suggs’ delivery that will keep listeners’ interest though, as will the attempts to follow lyrical patterns like “Oh, what parasites we are/ Sniffing through the darkness with our snouts” found on the track “Fidget and Fudge”, but certainly representative of the thoughtful verse construction seen throughout the album. It’s a fun trip traveling with Suggs as he sings his way through the impressive lyrical arrangements, even if it means having to endure the moments when those arrangements lean more towards silly wordplay, as on the band’s very unfortunate attempt at their version of David Bowie’s “China Doll” on “I Love Lovely Chinese Gal”.
Merge Records has done a fine job of securing a top spot in the Indie kingdom as of late: their artist roster is top notch these days, boasting the likes of the Arcade Fire, Spoon, and M. Ward. While the term “supergroup” is likely one of the most overused titles in rock music vocabulary, Merge has certainly offered up a respectable version here with White Whale. Members are formerly of Thee Higher Burning Fire, the Get Up Kids, and Butterglory. Most notable among the bunch is lead singer Suggs, a previously—undeservedly—overlooked songwriter whose run as frontman for Butterglory in the mid-‘90s and following solo career earned outcries of comparisons to the Kinks’ Ray Davies and Pavement. Hints of those likenesses can still be found in this new project and, as with any band that shares their label lineup with such a notable roster, the comparisons have continued with this album. Just the Arcade Fire in a boat? Perhaps. But the guys have done more than a fine job navigating themselves on this debut album.