[6 May 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
On his last record, 2011’s Cynics Need Love Too, North Carolina singer-songwriter Wesley Wolfe started off by worrying, “I think that I’m complacent and I don’t know what to do.” Two plus years later not knowing what to do isn’t the problem anymore. On his new record Numbskull, Wolfe seems more concerned with what happens after you decide the thing you will do. After you build the life you want. The album wonders over how you marry the pragmatic concerns of living in the world with finding the thing you love to do within it. It’s an excellent look at inspiration and maturity, at the ways in which the world can grind us down, and the ways in which we can wiggle out from under its twisting thumb.
The album mentions dreams often, and works to build a bridge from them back to some sort of reality. On “Lost in My Daydreams”, he admits “I get lost in my daydreams / but I never come back to my senses.” In “Fragment of a Dream” he repeats that “I find myself here, once again, / again and again.” Later, in “Deathrow” he claims that “all my life was spent” in that titular space. These moments are about the gap between what we’ve got and what we want, but they also worry over where pattern becomes repetition becomes rut. “Fragment of a Dream” is perhaps the best example, as Wolfe turns self-deprecating when claims “I talk all of this shit alone in this room / like a spineless coward,” but there’s also a hint of comfort in finding himself there, “once again.” He may not think he’s confronting the outside world in this moment, but “this room” is a space to make sense of it.
But it’s also about making sense of your place in that world. “Cloud Cuckoo” sings of what feels like a fruitless search for love, for connection. But when Wolfe demands “give me back my hopeless heart,” he may be worrying over another pattern—one where his heart ends up in the wrong place, putting in the wrong work for those dreams—but he’s also taking control, assuming agency, packing up his things and moving on. The troubled world remains and Wolfe just grins and moves on. And sometimes he’s moving on to better things. Oddly enough, the most dreamlike song may also be set in the clearest, brightest reality. The chiming haze of “Jesus Eyes” is an unabashed love song, but this isn’t love to an ideal or a dream, it’s to a flesh-and-bone person, one who is “innocent and beautiful to me.” This person is not an escape from the world, but rather a calming and sweet sign that life isn’t all trouble, even if the trouble sometimes yells louder than the comfort.
Around these moments of taking control, of finding ways to mesh dreams with reality, love with a comfortable life, there are moments of big concern, even self-doubt. The title track seems to focus on how aspirations—especially, say, that of living a life in music—change as we embed ourselves in the adult world. “I dreamt of success,” Wolfe sings, “but it only breeds assholes.” It’s the most overt criticism on the record, one that in that moment steps out of Wolfe’s head and takes a shot at someone else. For a second, anyway. But as Wolfe moves on to “watching all the righteous kids as they die” he closes the gap between him and that group. After those kids die, they are “reborn as adults, never forced to face our faults.” That slide from them to “our” is important. The same slide happens when Wolfe “walk[s] through a crowd with a teenage mentality,” as the sentence confuses us over who is taking ownership of that mentality. On “Deathrow”, when he shifts from “all my life” to “all our lives”, that deathrow goes from trap to communal space.
So Numbskull worries over life’s worries, and tries to twist the old patterns before they become ruts and, in this way, carve out little spaces outside of the trouble. Wolfe may present the community around him warts ‘n all—especially in the title track—but he also embraces it, calls it home. It’s the space wherein these songs can thrive, can find a home as well. Wolfe and his music are inextricably tied here, creator and creation are part of the same thing. It’s clear enough when his voice invites you to “read my mind” as it meshes with a sweet guitar hook. Life and music, music and life are one and the same. You could expand it, sub out music for passion, and the impact of the record only gets bigger.
Wolfe may ponder his individual place, but on this record he sounds triumphantly like a full band. Like Cynics Need Love Too, Wolfe recorded all the parts himself, but where that album was hushed and bittersweet, Numbskull is thundering drums and crunching guitars, big hooks and full-throated choruses. Wolfe can move from dream-pop to pure rock to churning rumble, but it all has a vital propulsion. There are also beautiful production touches, like the chimes on “Jesus Eyes”, the backwards percussion on “Lost in My Daydreams”, the careful layering and brilliant crescendo of “Numbskull”. If Wolfe is worries over his passion at times on this record, the craft on display here makes Numbskull his best record yet. So for all the soft-spoken wisdom at play on this record, when Wolfe tells us on “Deathrow” that “my best days are all behind me,” we can take comfort in know he’s not right all the time.