Photo: Zachary Chick / Grandstand Media

Wednesday’s ‘Rat Saw God’ Is a Vivid Tapestry of Misery

On Wednesday’s spectacular Rat Saw God, the North Carolina quintet weave a vivid tapestry of misery led by Karly Hartzman’s ekphrastic storytelling.

Rat Saw God
Dead Oceans
7 April 2023

On Wednesday’s new record, Rat Saw God, hell is a place on Earth. It’s magical and terrifying, animate and anesthetizing. Every corner bends toward the dark of the night like the edges of a burnt photograph. The air reeks like a sunbaked lawn that’s been pissed on.

Topographically it’s a verdant patchwork of farms and towns you’re likely to fly over on your way from one bustling metropolis to another – those cities that pulse so brightly with light and history that they draw us by the millions like moths to a flame. So many of us in America only know of this place from the window of a plane, its residents as diminutive and indistinguishable as ants or rats. Those people grow up with the notion that they’ve been left behind by a speeding culture doing erudite, postmodern donuts in the distance. They spend the rest of their lives coping with the trauma: laughing, acting out, drinking, drugging, fucking, fucking up, and casually overdosing in the parking lot of a strip mall.

Since the North Carolina five-piece released their first LP for Orindal Records in early 2020, they’ve steadily honed their portraiture of fly-over country life, from a foggy-lensed snapshot to a vivid painting more crisp and composed. Wednesday have done this without sacrificing any of their earliest work’s melancholy or explosive power. But where Twin Plagues reintroduced the band as purveyors of a compelling country/emo fusion (and Karly Hartzman as a deft spelunker in the caves of her psyche), Rat Saw God, their first LP for Dead Oceans, provides its fully realized evolution. It is Wednesday, as you could only imagine back in their nascency: fully aware of their capabilities and firing on every cylinder.

The first thing that hits is the production, courtesy of Alex Farrar (Snail Mail, Indigo de Souza, Hurray for the Riff Raff). From its opening notes, “Hot Rotten Grass Smell” whips across the ears like rubber fired from a popped tire on the highway. As Hartzman delivers a haunting gut punch of a final stanza (“The closet froze after you left / Except the people who took your shirts / Closed off your door with yellow tape / Found myself dead at the end of the staircase”), Wednesday dive down the wishing well with her, the vital element of Xandy Chelmis’ distorted slide guitar ever more present in the mix. Like the death knell squalls of “Twin Plagues”, it’s a fittingly violent start to a record about bottled generational frustrations and the oft-tragic outcomes of their releases.

What follows gets glorious and messy, not the least of which includes what comes directly after. Wednesday’s eight-minute, three-part masterpiece,”Bull Believer”, must be heard to be believed. Its length, complexity, and the cosmic power of its closing minutes threaten to overshadow the rest of Rat Saw God, and it almost does. Blessedly, Wednesday don’t reattempt its energy, and instead, we get the unabashed country twang of “Chosen to Deserve” and the lumbering lament of “Formula One”, the catchy tableau vivant of “Quarry”, and the listless slowcore of “What’s So Funny”. True to Wednesday’s growth, each track turns the corner onto another avenue of rock transformed in their peculiar alchemy.

It’s worth remembering that alchemy comes at the hands of five individuals, including the killer rhythm section of drummer Alan Miller and bassist Margo Schultz, who deftly perform the thankless work of buttressing Wednesday’s more distinct ingredients. MJ Lenderman remains a chameleonic guitarist, and his ability to accompany Hartzman’s anchoring guitar chords with appropriate hues for the occasion perhaps best affords Wednesday their signature versatility. Perhaps more impressive, however, is how Chelmis can take an instrument as potentially staid as slide guitar and do the same thing. Sonically, he’s the wild card country-frying tracks like “Chosen to Deserve” and “Got Shocked”, while also providing the oomph to “Bull Believer’s” sudden lapses into chaos and adding immersive textures to “What’s So Funny” and “TV in the Gas Pump”.

The rest comes down to Hartzman, whose capacity as a lyricist and vocalist has deepened formidably in just a few years. Her voice (in part because of Farrar’s treatment of it) has never sounded more powerful. She’s let loose before, on previous songs like “Fate Is…” and “Cody’s Only”, but never has she thrown herself into her words so viscerally, like on the crescendoing verses of “Turkey Vultures” or at the blaring end of “Bath County”. The true revelation, again, is “Bull Believer”, on which Hartzman surrenders so wholly to the catharsis by its end that it’s impossible to deny its short shelf life.

Compared to previous records, Hartzman’s phantasmagoric scenes and nonsequiturs also feel more vivid, and her stanzas are more economical in their power. In “Bath County” and “Quarry”, she captures fully realized characters within mere couplets – characters that in the past might require their own songs. Though the record’s sequencing might throw first listeners off – the hushed recitation of her Notes app amid the Strokes-like strums of “TV in the Gas Pump” approaches anticlimax – closer ears reveal common images weaving its tracks together. Her apocalyptic screams on “Bull Believer” could only be followed by “Got Shocked”, a retelling of electrocution at band practice (“I’m told that I screamed and looked up”) that shakes off a slower tempo as if the instruments were rebooting.

Last year’s covers record, Mowing the Leaves Instead of Piling ’em Up, auspiciously aligned Wednesday with a litany of songwriters fluent in “sadness and humor”, a melange commonly present in, but not exclusive to, a great deal of Southern music. To these ears, Rat Saw God’s version of that melange reads far more sadness than humor, with moments of astonishing bleakness from the get-go. Death abounds in recurring images of crashing cars, freezing temperatures, darkness, and blood: each carries its own thematic weight, and yet through these, Hartzman weaves Wednesday’s disparate scenes into a tapestry of wretchedness akin to a Bruegel painting, the details worthy of repeat engagements.

Pain remains a fertile ground for compelling art, but the brilliance of Rat Saw God lies in how the band also captures the resistant luminance within that pain. The characters in these songs suffer, but Hartzman draws them from places of empathy and honesty. She doesn’t condemn her subjects or propose an alternative to their suffering. There’s no alternative, really, to the kinds of suffering that these characters endure. Tied to their circumstances out of poverty or loyalty, they seek salvation in whatever form it arrives.

Such salvation often leads to escape or prison. Too many times, it leads to ruin. But it can also lead to a sense of endurance that insinuates pride and kinship, deeply human qualities fast losing their prevalence. In an interview with NME, as Chelmis describes his harrowing encounter with a yellowjacket nest that inspired “What’s So Funny”, he recounts Lenderman’s cackling response to his trauma with a defiant grin. To Wednesday, hell might be a place of earth, but it’s home and worth celebrating.

RATING 9 / 10