Brooklyn-based trio, the Wants actively and openly embrace the high-mindedness of classic post-punk and art-rock. Their look is very Joy Division 1979, and their press material is rife with references to the likes of feminist multimedia artist Jenny Holzer and psycho-noir filmmaker David Lynch. One could be forgiven for mistaking them as a postmodern intellectual construct that just happens to make music.
However, while everything about the Wants leads one to expect agitprop, their debut album, Container, is something quite a bit more fun than that. Despite being recorded piecemeal in bedroom studios over several years, the record has a clean, streamlined sound that’s immediately engaging—if not unfamiliar. Theirs is an art-pop lineage that goes back decades and bears a sonic connection to any band of too-skinny young people that’s ever appeared onstage in ill-fitting business clothes, dancing awkwardly.
Madison Velding-VanDam’s vocals are wry and bemused, but with an underlying sense of pain. Likewise, the songs are nervous, jittery, and terse. But this tightly-wound construction also gives them an energy that is infectious—and often danceable. Discounting a handful of cacophonic instrumentals and interludes, Container is a compact, concise package of seven songs. As with many of the best debut albums, nearly all those songs sound like they could be singles.
Throughout, Velding-VanDam wrestles with a world he is disturbed by yet can’t give up on, one he feels threatened by yet wants to understand. The title track puts these struggles in stark terms, with a series of instructions for an unnamed object, the world perhaps: “Watch it, pull it apart / Can it fit in a container? / Smash it… / Chew it up and eat it later.” As guitars begin to squeal over the rumbling, motoric rhythm, the “it” becomes a “he” and then a “she”. “Mold her, scold her / With black rubber arms, you can fold her.” Like a simple children’s song gone off the rails, it is easily the angriest, most angst-fueled song on the album.
From that point, the Wants’ dystopian dance party has only just started. Bassist Heather Elle and drummer Jason Gates consistently lay down wiry, funk-infused grooves that recall post-punk icons Gang of Four and the Slits as well as contemporaries like Warpaint. The rhythms don’t propel the songs so much as jerk them forward awkwardly, one yank at a time. “The Motor” is sweeping and dramatic, with synths and Velding-VanDam’s guitar invoking the titular engine. It’s the perfect soundtrack to a lost David Cronenberg film.
“Clearly a Crisis” takes more of a mid-tempo, slow-burning approach to the same feel. When it breaks down in the middle, Velding-VanDam decries the state in which the world and his struggles with it have left him repeating, “I have no intimacy / I’m never vulnerable” like a tortured mantra. It disturbs the groove, and it’s one of a few occasions where a little more subtlety might have resulted in more impact, not less.
Lest Container comes across as too heavy, too much of a downer despite its visceral body music, there are a couple more playful, pop-oriented moments. The twangy “Ape Trap” laments life in a cramped urban dwelling, while the quirky, stop-start “Nuclear Party” invites the listener to “kiss my bombs” with tongue firmly in cheek.
If the Wants have a signature track at this point, though, it’s the single “Fear My Society”. This song is the place where message and medium, statement, and songcraft come together most effectively. The heavy-handed title belies the pop appeal of the track’s immediate guitar hook as well as the genuine uncertainty of Velding-VanDam’s lyrics. Brilliantly, he nails the pressure of today’s (social) media-driven, all-or-nothing society down to one pertinent, devastating question: “Will you love me if I’m a failure?” In the catchy, call-and-response chorus, he avoids platitudes by admitting there’s no easy answer: “I would leave my society, but I don’t know how.” His narrator may be turned on and tuned in, but he can’t drop out. After all, he’s probably living in his parents’ basement.
It’s songs like this that suggest the Wants have a lot more to say, both thematically and musically. While it’s sometimes flawed and almost always derivative, Container is compelling enough to make one believe their next proclamation will be worth hearing.