New is overrated. Both in the frenetically trend-cycling province of indie rock and the world as a whole, the novel and unfamiliar can often initially appear to be more exciting and challenging than that which seems based in already-explored territory. After a while, however, that buzz band or new trend starts to seem sillier and sillier while familiar themes and questions are repeating themselves and demanding attention. Alex Brown Church, the man behind Sea Wolf, knows that thoughtful depth can be far more rewarding than dilettantish breadth and uses the band’s third album, Old World Romance to illustrate his point.
Sea Wolf started as a bedroom recording project fleshed out with a band in the studio, and its first two albums were full of songs that felt like fleshed-out solo acoustic numbers. However, on Old World Romance, Church takes full advantage of his backing band and the time production possibilities of his home studio, crafting a set of songs that rely on atmosphere and instrumentation just as much as songwriting. The sound of the record is rooted firmly in northwestern indie-pop of the mid-‘00s, calling to mind Nada Surf’s Chris Walla-produced albums, early Rogue Wave and Plans-era Death Cab For Cutie.
Although Sea Wolf is based in LA, Church grew up in Berkley and the small mountain town of Columbia, California, which helps explain the music’s sound because Old World Romance has a distinctly autumnal vibe that the City of Angels just can’t provide. The album’s songs center around the ideas of returning home and coming to grips with accepting one’s life on its own terms. Like many of his generation who were just spit out by their tumultuous twenties, Church wanders around his old haunts, staying out late, looking at the oceans, meeting friends from his past and otherwise trying to ground himself in time and space.
Church starts off trying to find himself by catching up with people from his past and taking stock of where he is. Returning home isn’t a nostalgia trip or D.I.Y. high school reunion, it’s a chance to try to figure out who he is through the lens of the places and people who knew him long ago. He looks for clues to himself with an old lover in “Priscilla” where he notes, “I know that endings / Are the best place to begin” and tries to “see what this love is for”. He continues the same quest “Kasper”, admitting “I’m an old man / Who can sometimes feel like a kid”. Not for nothing is the album’s lead song and single called “Old Friend”. The first half of the record is marked by a sense of drifting about trying to use props to spur an internal realization of purpose.
On the second half of the record, Church starts putting the pieces together and realizing that his search for meaning and direction have been more about quest than the destination. “Come back to yourself / Because there’s nowhere else to go” he pleads on “St. Catherine’s Street”, rejecting the wandering and search for external answers of his past for homecoming and self-reflection. He even admits as much in “Changing Seasons” where he talks about using changes in weather and scenery as a way to escape a past nipping at his heels. By the next song he’s begging for a “Miracle Cure” to help him finally make amends for his (unspecified) previous failings. But there are no great revelations or life-altering epiphanies to be had here, just a slow, quiet acceptance of himself, his age, and his place in life. The soft familiarity of the music echoes this theme providing comfort and stability – a musical home to match his physical one.
The downside of this is that the songs on Old World Romance do start to sound a bit same-y, as the procession of mid-tempo songs featuring syncopated drumming, dry acoustic guitars, and swelling strings or tasteful keys starts to blend together after a while. However, Brown manages to work creatively within a limited color set rather than becoming monochromatic, which saves the album from tedium. “Dear Fellow Traveler”, with its down-key folk guitar harkens back to early Sea Wolf when Iron & Wine comparisons were flying fast and furious. “Blue Stockings” is centered around a simple guitar-picked melody and gives us as close to a ballad or tempo change as this record has to offer.
But this sameness is part of the experience of the album. This isn’t meant to be a record to set the world on fire, it’s a record meant to capture specific set of places and feelings, which it does wonderfully. Time moves on, people change and every moment summer gets imperceptibly farther away and winter gets that much closer. Old World Romance ultimately reveals itself to be a song cycle, with the end leading right back into the beginning. “Saw something in the shadows / Pulled me in to the shallows” Church repeats on the closer, “Whirlpool”, at times exchanging “shadows” with “shallows and vice versa, pulling the listener back into the same path they’ve just left. For Sea Wolf, it’s not novelty that leads to wisdom but trying to understand the familiar, and in this case, they’re onto something.