Wildlife, the third album from the indie-pop featherweights Headlights, isn’t exactly the sprawling, tooth-and-nail kind of romp that its title would have you believe. In fact, as a quick disclaimer to the curious outdoors-inclined music enthusiast, it should be noted that there aren’t any cricket chirps, campfire singalongs, or bird calls to be found on the album — which, aside from featuring a song titled “We’re All Animals”, doesn’t really have much to do with the great outdoors. Not that that’s a bad thing; since the band’s inception in 2004, the Illinois-based five-piece has whipped up enough sugar-coated pop nuggets to entice even the most salt-of-the-earth backwoodsman. However, even with the addition of bassist Nick Sanborn and guitarist John Owens on Wildlife, Headlights prove unable to expand successfully beyond their top-of-the-food-group-pyramid niche.
By this point in their career, it’s evident that Headlights have mastered the difficult art of writing breezy, seemingly effortless pop songs. From bouncing, fuzzed-out bass lines to chiming guitar hooks to co-songwriters Erin Fein and Tristan Wraight’s breathy, yet infectious vocal lines, Wildlife proves that, once again, instant melodic gratification is the band’s greatest strength. However, Headlights are clearly no longer content in blazing a path between the whispered melodrama of Stars and the alt-pop accessibility of Rilo Kiley. Instead, on Wildlife, the band consolidate their trademark toe-tapping jingles into a shared bill with experimentation. So, yes, longtime fans still get the catchy, uptempo gems “Secrets” and “Get Going”, which are mined from the same vein as “Cherry Tulips” off of 2008’s Some Racing, Some Stopping. But elsewhere, Headlights abandon the cotton candy hook machine with mixed results.
On “You and Eye” and “Love Song for Buddy”, Headlights take Beach House’s haunted-carnival-ride organ for a spin around the block. The resulting gloom isn’t really poorly executed or even a nasty car wreck, it’s just not interesting. Stripped of the hooks, Fein’s repetitive lyrics never find a firm footing amid the eerie, skeletal chime and organ backdrop, and the band ends up treading water for too many minutes. However, the experiments on Wildlife aren’t all missteps. “Wisconsin Beaches” manages to evoke a creaking loneliness from slow acoustic strums, a slide guitar, shimmering feedback, and dual whispering from Fein and Wraight. And on the murky stomper “I Don’t Mind at All”, Headlights speeds up ’90s-era shoegaze and adds in a few pinches of squealing feedback to yield triumphant results.
Mirroring the occasional musical downshift from fuzzy, euphoric glee to brooding gloom, the lyrics on Wildlife take a melancholic turn, examining youth through the nostalgia-tinted lens of adulthood. “Nobody’s got your back / Not even your friends / They can’t / They’re too busy growing old”, Fein whisper-sings on “Dead Ends”, a song title that appropriately sums up Wildlife‘s bleak take on recovering the relationships and aspirations of youth. Throughout the album, the band takes stock of the isolation that comes with growing old and grimaces. This grimace translates into an album-long elegy to youth that, on standouts like “Get Going” and “Dead Ends”, encapsulates the bittersweet poignancy of growing up. In the gloomier, more experimental moments, Wildlife merely captures the sound of a band weathering growing pains that will hopefully pass with time.