There have been no drastic leaps thus far along the creative path of Jack Tatum’s Wild Nothing, and organic creative growth has suited him. Recorded in Sweden, Los Angeles and Brooklyn with a strong ensemble cast that included three different drummers and two different saxophonists, Life of Pause might have provided an opportune moment to veer left off course into the unknown, but the album doesn’t chase after new horizons so much as it absorbs their reflection into Wild Nothing’s fondly familiar dream pop bubble.
Wild Nothing’s bedroom origins naturally shaped their debut Gemini, but even after a couple of years of work and well-earned attention were parlayed into the wider-screen sophomore studio album, Nocturne stunned but didn’t shock. Ligament EPs in between and after didn’t just serve to empty the outtake drawer and refresh the memories of easily distracted audiences, but to dip a toe or two into less-charted waters and hint at the next possible destination. The Empty Estate EP, for example, scuffed up Nocturne’s pearl luster with “The Body in Rainfall”, its low fuzzy riff, insistent piano and yo-yoing synth line offering up the new smattering of color alluded to via the EP’s uncharacteristically warm and disorderly cover art.
Indulging that one further: what can be gleaned from the Life of Pause cover? Aside from the obvious voyeuristic ‘spying through the keyhole’ framing, there’s a conspicuously high level of detail not often seen outside of pre-’90s (re: before CDs first shrunk the canvas) album art. But are these kettles and lamps and stacks of books actually secret clues, or is it all simply furniture? What about the untied shoe and the flowers on the chaise lounge? If Life of Pause was intended to feel like a stolen peek into the private life of its creator, the first thing you might notice is how clean and feng shui this interior world is.
Most of Tatum’s quoted observations about the record in advance of its release — it being about “your place, your relationships”, and so forth — have been as broad-stroke as the classic, open-to-the-listener lyrics he often aims for. Despite occasionally naming names (“Only Heather”), Nocturne’s lens was often blurred with an impressionist streak: the two strangers in the dark on “Shadow”, or the melting days and skin turning into dust on “Through the Grass”. The strength of a Wild Nothing song doesn’t usually hinge on Tatum’s exact choice of phrasing, but, in comparison, Life of Pause speaks in a more straightforward manner.
Very quickly an image begins to emerge, a silhouette of a woman, if not a clear portrait. “Will I find a way / To make sense of the way that you love me / Will I find a way / To repay you for all that you’ve done for me,” he sings to his “Lady Blue”. “I know you’re not an angel / You’re just trying to be good / And deep down I am selfish / I know it to be true,” begins “A Woman’s Wisdom”, a layered slice of mid-tempo ‘80s goddess worship. Instead of Heather, this time around he muses over “Japanese Alice” above genially pogoing Britpop. “To Know You”, “Adore”, “TV Queen”… every track here is a love song of some kind, but whether Life of Pause is a song cycle about relationships in general or a meditation on one romantic pursuit in particular is inconclusive.
Structure and connection seem to have become an increased priority for Tatum. The track sequencing is impeccable, and another element of Life of Pause that feels distinctly ‘album era’: the building opener, taking the energy up a step, then slowing it down with the third song, and so forth. Meticulously dissecting and reconstructing the familiar has been one of Wild Nothing’s strengths from the start. A chemistry built on a fine balance can be easily tipped, however, and it would be fair to wonder if the act of opening up the floor to more influences might leave less room for Tatum’s own voice.
A response might be found in “Adore”, which strums and tumbles together in vintage late ‘60s psych pop fashion, but glides above the realm of mere tribute. If Wild Nothing’s deepening playbook of new wave and half-remembered era staples ring familiar, filtering them through Tatum’s refined sensibility brings out something distinct. Getting the conspicuous but good-spirited nick from Talk Talk’s “It’s My Life” in “To Know You” out in the open early was for the best. The more covert operation at hand is to get people listening to Haircut 100 and Altered Images with fresh ears. Plus, if the marimba-surfing “Reichpop” (a titular nod to the minimalist composer Steve Reich) that kicks off Life of Pause is any indication, further change is already coming.