Photo: Alex Bleeker / Courtesy of Woodsist Records

Woods Explore Darkness on ‘Strange to Explain’

Folk rock's Woods create a superb new album, Strange to Explain, that mines the subconscious in search of answers to life's unsettling realities.

Strange to Explain
22 May 2020

If you weren’t paying attention, you might not have realized that Woods spent the last decade growing into one of indie rock’s most reliable bands. Between 2011 and 2016, they released four legitimately great LPs, each one finding co-founders Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere more comfortable in their respective roles. Earl honed his signature falsetto and gained confidence as a frontman and songwriter. As producer, engineer, and multi-instrumentalist, Taveniere gradually moved the band away from the tape-hiss of their early days and towards a broader sound that matched their expanding influences. Every record was simultaneously more adventurous and more refined. Unlike many of their buzzed-about contemporaries from early 2010s New York, Woods had established an instantly recognizable aesthetic without ever sounding trapped by it.

Maybe that’s why their last album, 2017’s Love Is Love, was such a disappointment. Written and recorded in the two months following the 2016 election, the record was conceived as a positive protest to the country’s rising negativity. Unfortunately, like a lot of art made about the rise of Trump, Love Is Love was rushed and obvious. For a lesser band, it would’ve been flawed but admirable nonetheless; but for a band who had made such consistent strides in such a short amount of time, it felt like a slip and a fall.

Luckily, their latest, the excellent Strange to Explain, acts as a course correction. Where Love Is Love was filled with mantras and positive affirmations, Earl is now quick to admit that wishing away darkness doesn’t guarantee its departure. That perspective might be due to Earl and Taveniere’s work producing David Berman’s Purple Mountains record, a masterful and heartbreaking work released last summer. The partnership began when Berman, a legendary recluse who had infamously ended his band Silver Jews in 2009, reached out to Earl in a 3:00 am email, asking if Woods would work with him on a comeback album.

“It seems like a dream,” Taveniere recently told The New York Times, recalling his reaction. “Did David Berman really come out of retirement and contact us?” But not all dreams end the way we’d like. Purple Mountains would be Berman’s final work before taking his own life a month after the album’s release. While Strange to Explain doesn’t directly address Berman’s death, their time working with him undoubtedly informed the record’s perspective.

As Taveniere pointed out, the experience was formative but surreal, so it only seems fitting that Strange to Explain is a meditation on dreams. Earl’s lyrics explore the subconscious in search of answers to life’s unsettling realities. It’s there that he’s able to visit departed friends (“Where Do You Go When You Dream?”) and find some rest (“Just to Fall Asleep”). Underneath it all, there’s the persistent recognition of his own mortality — that dreams, like life, slip by without warning. “Fade away, that’s a fact,” he sings frankly on the record’s shimmering, piano-led title track.

That’s not to say the album’s a slow, mournful affair. Earl and Taveniere’s shared production is the best it’s ever sounded, building on the polish of 2014’s With Light and With Love and 2016’s City Sun Eater in the River of Light to turn some of Earl’s most world-weary songs into inescapable ear-worms. Take “Can’t Get Out”, a cathartic anthem whose fuzzed-out bassline and soaring synth expel the claustrophobia of its hook: “Can’t get back / Can’t get out / Can’t take a breath / Can you be?”

On “Fell So Hard”, a side-two highlight, Earl encourages a struggling friend by suggesting they embrace the unknown. “Into night, you look so far,” he sings, “you might find just what you need.” The band then slip into a haunting, repetitive groove, allowing the song’s tension to swell for nearly two minutes before darting back to the chorus. “And you might fall apart any minute now,” Earl sings, as Taveniere’s guitar follows his melody. It’s a fitting metaphor for the album as a whole: despite the impending doom, it sounds euphoric.

RATING 8 / 10