“You were a road I could travel on / ‘Til opportunity knocked at the gate / What will find at the end of my big mistake?” Leave it to Office Culture to make breakups sound so classy and eloquent. Like the Beautiful South and maybe Father John Misty, the Brooklyn quartet transforms the day-to-day stuff into instant pop classics. On the opening track of Big Time Things, the irresistible “Suddenly”, vocalist and keyboard player Winston Cook-Wilson sings of a relationship that’s past its prime. That announces from the very start that Office Culture are picking up where they left off: singing of love and sadness, city life and complicated relationships, all buoyed by a four-piece combination that locks in with a unique, welcome brand of art-pop.
Big Time Things is Office Culture’s first album since 2019’s A Life of Crime (and first on the Northern Spy label). Anyone familiar with the band’s makeup – Charlie Kaplan on bass, Pat Kelly on drums, and Ian Wayne on guitar – will likely be reassured by the familiar sounds and thrilled by how coherent and focused their new album sounds. As usual, Office Culture draw musical inspiration from several sources – the sophisticated jazz-pop of Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell, the moody, ’80s indie buzz of China Crisis and the Blue Nile, and even a dash of lounge-leaning art rock reminiscent of Avalon-era Roxy Music. Office Culture aren’t necessarily a band you crank up at house parties under the influence of too much cheap beer (although you could certainly do that). It’s sophisticated but off-kilter, suitable for a lonely, overcast drive or perfectly paired with some obscure, potent mixed drink in a dimly lit bar.
“Suddenly” kicks off the record with a subtle, artfully constructed mix of styles, as Cook-Wilson’s electric piano lays down a simple, mildly staccato riff, Kaplan and Kelly’s rhythm section provides an in-the-pocket groove, and Wayne’s guitar applies the lightest of pop touches. But it’s not long before the song veers into unpredictable territory. The second chorus introduces a gorgeous string arrangement that recalls Paul Buckmaster’s iconic work with the Rolling Stones and Elton John, and a brief, atonal middle section is just chaotic enough to wipe away – briefly – the solace that preceded it. Office Culture may be a pop band, but they’re often a weird pop band.
There are wonderful opportunities on Big Time Things for Office Culture to stretch out as if they were taking advantage of the three years since the last album, not just to play tunes but ruminate and establish an unhurried groove. “Timing”, for instance, clocks in at nearly seven minutes and lopes along multiple verses while Cook-Wilson sings of unsettling scenarios. “Bodies stacked in the halls / Though they’d heard very call / The freedom fighters never went there at all / It’s so surprising what people say they’ll do”. Carmen Rothwell provides nimble, irresistible upright bass playing. The strings return here as well and are even given plenty of room to breathe, particularly during a brief section where they’re treated like a soloing instrument, not just a window-dressing afterthought.
It can be maddening to try describing Office Culture’s sound. “Pop” seems too insignificant, and to put it in the context of late 1970s/early 1980s adult contemporary might be construed as the ultimate turn-off, but it’s a fair and not at all insulting comparison. Cook-Wilson’s delicate croon recalls the jazzy cadences and timbre of Michael Franks or Stephen Bishop, and the most “un-rock” tendencies of Donald Fagen are certainly present here. Cook-Wilson is undoubtedly a student of pop and rock history; he cohosts an informative and entertaining podcast called Late Era, where late-period albums by legacy artists are analyzed. It doesn’t hurt that he and the rest of Office Culture dabble in other groups and solo projects. They bring a variety of influences to the table.
Essentially, Big Time Things – like Office Culture’s two previous albums – often walks a fine line between quirkiness and genuine, heartfelt sentiment. Unlikely juxtapositions abound, with “Line” providing the most clear-cut example of that: a bright, soulful Fender Rhodes coexists with a jittery, off-center beat and idiosyncratic blasts of distorted guitar riffs. Meanwhile, Cook-Wilson assesses the hard truths of an imperfect relationship: “I don’t need things to fall in line / I never knew where the line was.”
But there’s also plenty of pure, gleaming songcraft, presented unironically: “Little Reminders” may actually be a genuine happy love song. Imagine that. “We strengthen the ties that bind us,” Cook-Wilson sings, “And catch those little reminders / Of our love.” Bolstering the song’s power are backing vocals from Rothwell, Alena Spanger, and Caitlin Pasko. Meanwhile, Rothwell and Ryan El-Solh (both musicians who backed Cook-Wilson on Good Guess, his gorgeous 2020 solo album) contribute a bold, mesmerizing string arrangement.
“Maybe there were never rules to this at all,” Cook-Wilson sings over the mid-tempo funk of Big Time Things‘ closing song, “Rules”. He’s likely referring to relationships, the narrative glue that tends to hold these songs together. But for a band that eschews tradition to create their own specific vibe, the line also works as Office Culture’s guiding principle.