[11 March 2010]
“And it’s true that I stole your lighter / And it’s also true that I lost the map”, Liz Phair sang in her once-trademark monotone on the hilarious and heartbreaking “Divorce Song” from her classic debut album Exile in Guyville, “But when you said that I wasn’t worth talking to / I had to take your word on that”—tongue-in-cheek detachment as a thin armor against genuine emotional despondency. It, along with the devastating confession of “The license said you had to stick around until I was dead / But if you’re tired of looking at my face, I guess I already am” that follows later in the song, are faintly yet potently echoed in “The New Car”, the by-far strongest moment on Josiah Wolf’s own debut Jet Lag. As with Phair’s couple, Wolf’s subjects find themselves similarly stranded together in a car well after the ending of their story has already been written. Also reflected are metaphorical, though no less troubling, threats of violence (the loaded gun placed in Phair’s hands in “Divorce Song”, spilled oil visualized as “black blood all over the pavement” here) slicing through the stifling tension. And, as with Phair’s song once again, such vivid imagery is simply a ramping-up to “The New Car”’s most brutal punch, here the sighed resignation of “When you told me that I wasted your 20s I didn’t know what to say”, a withering afterthought that delivers the song’s knockout lyrical blow.
If only such a moment was not such a startling rarity on Jet Lag, an undeniably personal and heartfelt collection inspired by its author’s own divorce that nevertheless fails to otherwise find the language to connect in any meaningful way elsewhere on the record. More confrontational candor borrowed from Phair might have helped, though Wolf could have easily looked much closer to home for pointers. Josiah is brother of Yoni Wolf, the brilliantly profane, surreal, and ultimately poignant songwriter behind the acclaimed alternative-hip-hop-turned-indie-pop outfit Why?, for which Josiah has served as drummer for as long as the once-solo, now-full-band project has required one.
Fittingly, Jet Lag is seasoned with some of the instrumental quirks that adorn Why?’s music, most notably on the toy-like keyboard plinks that skip through tracks like “The Trailer and the Truck” and “Ohioho”, or the abrupt dynamic shifts that occasionally launch the ostensible choruses of “That Kind of Man” and “The New Car” into brief chaotic flurries. For the most part, though, this Wolf is a gentle folkie, with even the most sonically divergent of these tracks remaining light, strummy acoustic tunes at their core. This would be fine if Wolf had anything like the presence, intensity, or melodic craft of a great, or even reasonably solid, solo singer/songwriter, but Wolf seems insistent on grounding his music in the absolute wussiest aspects of indie-pop with a forced sensitivity that begins, all too early on in the record, to feel aggressively self-imposed.
Still, even with music this drab, Wolf might have been able to sneak by were he saying much of anything worth listening to. Unfortunately, with the one aforementioned exception, the vast majority of the sentiments expressed in these lyrics might be awkward enough in their earnestness to embarrass the likes of Owl City or Dashboard Confessional. “What is your name, is it sadness?” from “Gravity Defied”, or “I know bad decisions leave a scar on the hearts of women and men” from “That Kind of Man” are typically drippy, but even worse are the moments when Wolf tries, earnestly but gracelessly, to spin intimate autobiographical detail into song. At worst, the result is the occasional howler like “I’d never seen a naked breast / Even the in the bra ads they were dressed / The confessions of a little boy who followed the flesh” (from “That Kind of Man”), but for the most part we are simply left with lines like “Unused ‘I love you’s build up in my throat / And my apartment smells like divorce” (from, um, “The Apart Meant”). Impossible as it is to doubt the heartsickness behind such confessions, and as churlish as it feels to kick Wolf while he is so clearly down, it is equally difficult to connect with words that land with such a resounding thud as poetry.
The further that Jet Lag goes on, the more it finds Wolf wallowing in the banality that eventually begins to take over during some of our lowest moments in life, at one point stopping to wistfully inventory his childhood coin collection. If this sounds as painfully unexciting as it actually does play on record, it needn’t be. I am reminded of John Darnielle’s own breakup chronicle on the Mountain Goats’ Get Lonely (2006). Typically regarded as a minor Darnielle work, embedded in that record are small, mundane moments, like the experience of starting the morning by making coffee now for just one, that ring heart-wrenchingly true. For all of Wolf’s bravery in putting his broken heart on public display, on Jet Lag it is, sadly, only the banality that winds up being contagious for the listener.