Throughout the 2010s, numerous groups have taken the best of 1980s post-punk and synthpop bands such as the Smiths, New Order, and the Cocteau Twins, and created a new wave of dream pop. Beach House has consistently created some of the best and most ethereal melodies of the decade. DIIV, Craft Spells, and Beach Fossils have turned out consistently good, reverb-friendly, indie pop. The theatrical Empire of the Sun has embraced what could be the gaudiest musical and visual excesses of the ’80s, and managed to turn those elements upside-down in creating something fresh and interesting.
Quite possibly no one, however, has been doing dream pop better than the Jack Tatum vehicle, Wild Nothing. Tatum formed Wild Nothing as a college student in Blacksburg, Virginia in 2009, and he is effectively Wild Nothing, along with a touring band and some different producers in the studio.
Tatum’s first two albums, Gemini (2010) and Nocturne (2012), and two EPs, Golden Haze (2010) and Empty Estates (2013), are all transcendent and remarkably intimate insights into Tatum’s world. The third album, Life of Pause (2016) and, based on two singles and some advanced listens, the fourth album, Indigo, due 31 August 2018, mark more structured songs and bring in some new influences, and are standout records, as well.
As to those earliest releases, much has been said of the modern, isolated and computer-bound composer, making so-called “bedroom pop”. One view is that such reclusives may be missing out on the experience and the musical growth that comes from collaborative jam sessions and being a part of living, breathing music scenes. But Tatum’s output is as clear of evidence as any that great music can clearly be made through solitude and technology, so long as it is in the right hands, anyway. For nine years, Tatum has rolled out one melodic gem after another, layering in guitars, synth lines, propulsive rhythms, and his own understated but sublime vocals to nearly perfect the genre. Despite Tatum’s reliance on himself, studio effects, and a synthesizer, Wild Nothing is still soulful, personal, and accessible.
Tatum sometimes sings with an almost wispy delivery, think a male version of Elizabeth Fraser, Morrissey, and some Ian Curtis, but he delivers with heartbreaking honesty. His vocals are often also so unassuming that his lyrics are not immediately discernible, but that kind of ambiguity just opens his songs to deeper and more personal interpretations. Indeed, Tatum regularly blurs the line between barely-waking consciousness and a truly dream-like state as well as anyone. It all brings to mind what might be dream-pop’s spiritual godfather, the Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping”.
Further, Tatum maintains a transcendent feel over virtually all of his songs, but with varying textures and approaches. Thus, the songs can ooze into one another but they ever lose their individual identities, a sometime hazard of dream pop.
On Life of Pause, Tatum’s songwriting continued to evolve and develop in interesting ways. It’s as if he started his career out far off in the ether, and his vision has slowly come into focus, leading to still unique but more solidly constructed songs. The cover/digital image that accompanies Life of Pause, in fact, is of Tatum sitting in a small, comfortably designed room, meant to physically symbolize this new approach.
On this 2016 release, Tatum found an acknowledged Philly soul influence, some quite avant-garde pop, ala an Ariel Pink, and some updated pop/disco features along the lines of Phoenix. It’s a very good album, and though not as instantly accessible as his earlier work that just seemed to wash over the listener, the newer stuff requires more listens and maybe a bit more effort from the listener, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Life of Pause is Tatum trying new approaches and some transition, like a songwriter shifting gears and doing so fairly seamlessly. Based on the first early listens to Indigo, Tatum is continuing to evolve and still very much in his dream-pop groove. He has gone from being a master of converting dreams into music, to now a more substantive but still imminently listenable and soulful sound. Dream Pop 2.0.
With all of the above in mind, here is one list of The Best 18 Songs of Wild Nothing:
The first single form Nocturne and a representative song of Jack Tatum’s early dream pop glory.
17. “Disappear Always”
While listening to this track it hit me: this early stuff is just young love, but definitely not puppy love. This highlights powerful emotional experiences amazingly expressed through jangle guitars locked in with the bass, echoing vocals, surprisingly affecting guitar riffs, and swooning vocals.
This early, homemade cover of the Kate Bush song for Tatum’s then-girlfriend ended up getting him his first serious exposure in the music business. This is one of those debut songs that sounds incredibly raw but the serious talent is already unmistakable, too. The song even starts with a line about dreaming. It sounds like Tatum is singing from inside an organ, and possibly accompanied by an accordion, which all works just fine.
15. “Whenever I”
Tatum keeping things fresh. Not dream pop, but a bluesy, loungey dream pop.
14. “Our Composition Book”
Upbeat but forlorn at the same time. It’s as if Tatum is feeling the music so much that he can’t be bothered to fully enunciate the words.
A fairly simple song with plangent guitar, mournful vocals, and some incredibly vivid lyrics: “In your eyes, I’ve got nothing to see anymore / To convince me enough to compromise my heart.”
One of Wild Nothing’s first breakout songs. Fairly straightforward pop with a strong beat but timeless feel, like Tatum is singing directly from a long-ago place in his memory.
Percolating electro beats drive this song, along with guitar flourishes, and all buried in warm synth lines. Tatum sings about trying to live life and find yourself at the same time: “I’ll try a new face for now / Trying this new face that I can’t see.” (FYI: The title is a nod to the legendary minimalist composer Steve Reich and not the Third Reich. Which is good to know.)
10. “Vultures Like Lovers”
Gorgeous, dense, reverb heavy dream pop, set to Marr-esque guitar. The whole song vibrates with energy.
One could guess that this song title and the music itself are an homage to shoegaze pioneers, Ride. More substantial effects than and more of the feel of a Britpop/shoegaze band.
A wide-open synthesizer gives the feel of, and like the video (below) seems to capture, literally being dropped back into time at some perfect moment. Strong guitar strumming and bass keep it in the realm of rock. Tatum has been characterized as being in love with love, which is great place to be, although a bit precarious, too. Midway through the song, a friendly woman’s voice in Latin is accompanied by a warm synth line, and ends with her apparently working out the meaning of life; at least she has in that particular moment.
7. “Your Rabbit Feet”
A gorgeous slice of heartbreaking synthpop:
It was the hungriest night I ever knew
But it was hungry for you, love
And what a shame we spend so little time living isn’t it?
6. “Partners in Motion”
A wavering synth line takes the song into a dense, dream-inducing state, as always; maybe somewhere near where “Paradise” goes. Tatum sounds more clear-headed, but everything is soulful and as languid as ever, including the horns.
5. “Life of Pause”
1980s-influenced synthesizer music is not necessarily associated with soulfulness but here Tatum’s Philly Soul influence comes through. The newly-added horns, and a synthesizer mimicking strings, accentuate and deepen the feel of everything. Tatum’s vision is lusher than ever.
It is also some avant pop with additional odd and random sounds reminiscent of Soft Bulletin-era Flaming Lips.
4. “Letting Go”
Tatum creates even more substantive but still atmospheric soundscapes. Some wondrously odd horn effects float along over a strong, jangling guitar. Tatum still has a foot in the 1980s but he is also way out in the front of indie pop, at the same time.
3. “Golden Haze”
The title covers it: warm, transcendent melody, and underneath the ethereal synth lines and vocals are a classic Smiths-like guitar and bass jangle. Lost in a stunning, mid-tempo haze: “Golden haze, hold out for days / Haven’t seen you, haven’t seen anyone.”
2. “Only Heather”
A fantastic and different kind of love song, dream-inducing and melodic, snappy beat, swooning background vocals, and some bittersweet pain underlying it all. With lines like “It’s better to fake than to love her for real” it’s not quite clear what is going on though the excellent video (below) helps clarify things. A guy wanders a city street at night by himself while others go about their lives. He has a pretty rough looking wound but it is all his to bear. It may be heartbreak or the pain of an unfulfilled yearning to be with Heather—but, whatever it is, to Tatum, it is a pain that only a girl as wonderful as Heather could inflict.
1. “Summer Holiday”
An instant classic with aggressive guitar strumming melded with layers of warm synth effects, and insistent rhythm and vocals. It’s something like the equally great, or better, progeny of New Order’s “Age of Consent”. This may be Tatum’s most classically constructed pop song, though its vocals and fading chorus make it utterly transcendent, too.