When first wading into Get Back, Peter Jackson’s expansive new documentary on the last days of the Beatles, one’s first reaction to it might be to ask, “Wait … this is how long?” But if you give it a minute, or more precisely about two hours, you start to experience a sense of wonder at the quality of material the band is struggling with.
Besides the songs that became some of the best moments of Abbey Road and Let It Be (“Across the Universe”, “I Me Mine”, “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”, “Golden Slumbers”, “Get Back”) the group bats about nascent versions of songs that would become highlights of their post-Beatles solo work (“Gimme Some Truth”, “Another Day”, “All Things Must Pass”). Though much has been made of the arguments and disagreements that finally broke the band apart, what outlasts the harsh words and hard feelings, what survives, are the songs they made.
An unrelated but not all that different kind of band drama is playing out right now in New Jersey, where the Wrens, a critically-revered and much-beloved band of now-50-something indie-rockers, have imploded on their way to finishing what was to have been their first record in 18 years.
If you know anything about the Wrens, it’s likely that after two albums, an EP, and a decade or so spent navigating the highs and lows of the major label loop-the-loop, they decamped to indie Absolutely Kosher to release 2003’s The Meadowlands. That album was an artistic, commercial, and critical success far beyond all reasonable expectations, which gave the band an unanticipated second wind.
And if you know anything else about the Wrens, it’s that the band has become somewhat notorious for their unintentionally torturous method of making albums. The Meadowlands took four years to complete. Its follow-up was in the works for over a decade before being abandoned.
According to Wrens singer and bassist Kevin Whelan, this wait to get back to the pleasures of being a band again, among other disagreements, finally undid the group.
Whelan released a new album, Observatory, under the moniker Aeon Station. “I just wanted to enjoy music,” says Whelan. “I never had a dream of doing a solo thing. I’ve been in the Wrens for over 30 years and I’ve never played a solo show. I’ve never played with another band. I’ve never been that guy. I’ve only ever been in the band.”
It’s an album built on deliberate extremes. Wild blasts of exuberant guitar rock (“Everything at Once”, “Queens”, “Better Love”) are tempered by equally stunning songs arranged for just pianos and acoustic guitars (“Empty Rooms”, “Move”). Anchoring it all is Whelan’s voice, pushed to the forefront in a way it hadn’t been in his recordings with the Wrens. His singing can be both full-throated and forceful, as well as intimate and warm. His range and effectiveness as a lead singer is a revelation.
Observatory is intentionally immediate and intentionally accessible while maintaining the kind of musical sophistication that was a hallmark of the Wrens’ sound. “There’s always some kind of musical trickery or exercise going on in Kevin’s songs, which is awesome,” says Observatory‘s co-producer, Tom Beaujour.
The songs, Whelan says, are all directly personal. If there’s a central theme to Observatory, it’s contained in a lyric from the song “Leaves”, in which Whelan sings, “I’d rather fight again, than live with the pain.” It’s an idea that he revisits throughout the album; all the ways we can move on, move through and blast past life’s challenges. “I can’t talk about other lands and mythological figures,” he jokes. “I can’t even do the Springsteen thing where it’s a character in a story.”
Half of the album was recorded over just two weekends at Beaujour’s Nuthouse Studios in December 2020. Whelan recruited two other members of the Wrens, his brother, Greg Whelan, and Jerry MacDonald, to play guitar and drums. Beaujour remembers the sessions as light-hearted and fun, with Whelan making decisions quickly and then moving on. “He has very strong preferences and good instincts but he’s also a guy who moves fast,” says Beaujour. “In my experience, when he says something is done, it’s done. It doesn’t mean, ‘It’s done, but I’m going to change my mind tomorrow.'” All of the work was completed without any definite plans for what would become of it. “I just made it for myself, and my wife, and my mother,” Whelan says.
The album’s other half is made-up of the five songs Whelan had originally intended to contribute to the Wrens. Those songs were written and recorded by Whelan at his home in New Jersey. He had set for himself the daunting goal of writing 100 songs, of which he would pick just five to hand over to the band. The rest were to be shelved. “I’m not Bruce Springsteen or Elliott Smith, one of these people that are just an amazing songwriter,” Whelan says. “I’m not that person. I know who I am and I know it’s going to take a lot to get the best that I can do.”
His 100 songs project is a testament to how serious the band was in their desire to surpass The Meadowlands. The focus of Whelan and Charles Bissell, the band’s other main songwriter, was on filling the new album with the best possible songs they could write. It was that same underlying intention to focus on only their strongest material that drove the pair, as well, on The Meadowlands.
“For that album,” Whelan remembers, “we said, ‘This is it. We’re done. We’re friends and have a lot of fun, so why don’t we just go out and do the best songs we can possibly do.’ As a band, we always had weird stuff, like 23-song records, or we’d do extreme things … almost like jokes that we thought were funny. So, we thought, ‘Let’s make one focused record and do our best songs.'”
The 100 songs project is also an example of the kind of unsparing work ethic that drove the band. Whelan’s dedication to finishing his songs, layered on top of the growing responsibilities he was taking on at his work, caused intense friction in his personal life. Writing and recording consumed his free time and led to a break-up with the woman who would later become his wife.
Whelan eventually repaired that relationship, got married, bought a home in the suburbs, and began a family. Observatory‘s closing track, “Alpine Drive”, directly references the new life Whelan was beginning. The song lyrics, he writes over email, are him dreaming that “all of this work on a next Wrens album was coming to an end. And it gave me this want and hope of coming back home.” Even as his life grew more complicated, he remained a devoted believer in the Wrens. “Nobody was a bigger cheerleader than me,” he says.
According to Whelan, tensions escalated within the band beginning around early 2020. “I did kind of tell them,” he says, “that if we can’t pull our shit together, here are the options … ‘We can go back and be punk rock and record a whole brand new record; I am going to take my songs and do some other songs see what comes of it; or, we come together and see some mutual ground.'” “Every option was on the table,” he adds, “except for I wasn’t going to sit around like I’d been doing for 13 years.”
“In 2020, during the lockdown and scares of COVID, instead of learning a new skill, I decided to create new songs with no particular goal in mind,” he says. “It was just a way to get back to what I loved.” Even after recording those songs in December of 2020, he says, he was still under the impression that the Wrens would be releasing a full band album sometime soon. It was only after Sub Pop Records, the label that had signed the Wrens back in 2014, reacted enthusiastically to Whelan’s finished work in the spring of 2021, and after he’d set a deadline for the new Wrens album to be sent off for mastering that had been missed, that he began making plans to give the new recordings a proper release.
Bissell has his own perfectly reasonable explanations for why finishing the Wrens record dragged out for so long, including a life-threatening illness, his own responsibilities as a husband and father, and the unavoidable challenges of trying to make a rock album at home with a band whose members were rarely ever all in the same room all at the same time.
I was in contact with both Whelan and Bissell in early 2020, before the conversations that finally splintered the band took place, for an article that was published on Aquarium Drunkard. It was obvious even then, though neither said as much, that the band was experiencing some rocky sledding. Still, it seemed all but certain they would find a way forward. With the release of Observatory, if recent articles on the band are any indication, any chances of them ever working together again have been obliterated.
What the Wrens might have accomplished had they stayed together will, for the time being, remain an open question. In the meantime, some excellent music is finally seeing the light of day. Uncut gave Observatory a rating of 9 out of 10. The Independent called it “the greatest indie rock record of 2021.” “I truly believe if three people like the record, I am really done and happy,” Whelan says. “I am good with that space, for sure.” Based on early reactions to the record, it will be enjoyed by significantly more than three people.
Bissell, meanwhile, is preparing his own solo album and it is equally remarkable. Lyrically, it’s filled with the same asides, curlicues, and carefully considered details that have always marked his best work. Musically, it pushes far past anything he’s done to date. When he chooses to release it, it will turn heads.
Sadly, the intra-band arguments have taken something of a nasty public turn since early November, based on quotes being thrown around in publications and on social media. The truth of just why a band that’s been together for so long suddenly falls apart is certainly much, much more complicated than can be conveyed in any article or even in any eight-hour documentary. The end of a group uncorks the same kinds of tension, anger, relief, and sadness that mark the close of any long relationship. Something’s lost, but something’s gained, etc., etc.
Writing about the Wrens now, it’s hard not to feel, to inelegantly reference one of their better-known songs, as if you have to choose a side. I think that to do so is a mistake, and I also believe that in time, even if they never work together again, the band’s members will find a way to resolve their differences.
The Wrens may be through, but the deathly wait for new music from the members of the Wrens is now over. “People have asked, ‘Is Observatory a break-up record?'” Whelan says. “There’s aspects of that to it, but it’s the after part of the break-up.”