Music

Wussy Are the "Aliens in Our Midst" on 'What Heaven Is Like'

Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Ethereal, otherworldly, and darn near perfect, Wussy continue to justify their critical praise on What Heaven Is Like.

What Heaven Is Like
Wussy

Damnably

18 May 2018

In one of his side jobs from leading Wussy, Chuck Cleaver collects and sells pop culture ephemera, much of it from the 1950s to the 1970s. It's a shame that he and the rest of his bandmates must do such things because Wussy deserves to be a full-time, make-a-decent-living-at-it band, but the activity does inform the Wussy aesthetic. Greil Marcus' phrase "That Old, Weird America" tends to get overused, but it's an apt jumping off point to consider the somewhat later period of American culture that shaped Cleaver's artistic vision, call it "That Recently Passed, Kitschy America". Such references a time when someone like Evel Knievel could become an icon, an era mixing unchecked optimism with stubborn self-absorption, a time that finds us on the cusp of our current mega-consumerist culture, where true individualism was acceptable and not a threat, unlike the ritualistic sameness that passes for identity today.

There's always been something out of time about Wussy. Their take on rock and roll harkens back to classic garage, pop, and psychedelic reference points of the past yet they consistently surprise. Like the tchotchkes and artifacts of our recent, schlocky past, Wussy's sound resonates as if from some other world that resonates with optimism for the future. In Wussy's world, time moves recklessly forward like a souped-out jalopy, fuzzy dice bobbing from the rearview mirror the driver is steering by.

Listening to What Heaven Is Like, one gets the feeling that Cleaver and Co. are themselves the "aliens in our midst" that Cleaver announces on the album's sixth cut. They are one with the proud outsiders, the weirdoes, and never-fit-ins. At a time when "illegal aliens" are being excoriated, when questioning the status quo welcomes charges of being "un-American", and when conformity to a singular kind of patriotic identity is preached as normalcy, maybe embracing an alien identity is a necessary panacea. If there's an answer to the implied question of the album's title, then it is this subversive realization: Heaven is for the oddballs.

Album opener "One Per Customer" sets this tone in its reminder that our lives are singular commodities with no warranties, refunds, or replacements. The sneer in Cleaver and Lisa Walker's repeated refrain of "Sorry sir, there's only one per customer" is the kind I imagine that some unfortunate immortal soul working the customer service desk in Heaven would speak with. Imagine being a floor manager at Heaven's gate: What kinds of complaints and excuses must be lobbed at that unfortunate (immortal) soul for all eternity? In a similar vein, "Nope" warns that we are wasting our singular life allotment within the current social media cult: "Open your eyes / Get out of bed / You're really dead."

Much of What Heaven Is Like is a noisy, dissonant, and beautiful break from pop song structure. "Firefly", "Oblivion", and "Black Hole" feature Walker's voice floating over celestial soundscapes that evoke floating above and beyond experience, trapping fleeting moods in sound as if captured in warm amber. "Aliens in Our Midst" opens with a buzzing like that of a flying saucer hovering overhead. What begins as a wish to leave this island earth for an alien realm above quickly evolves into a treatise on finding the aliens among us, with Walker's buried background voice singing "They look like me and you / Someday their dreams will come true." Meanwhile, "Tall Weeds" is built on a bed of swirling guitars and feedback.

To be in the tall weeds is to be lost or forgotten, but Wussy is neither of those things. Although, in at least one interview regarding the new record, Cleaver openly contemplates the possibility that this could be the last Wussy record, and Walker sings "It's the last time around" on album-closer "Black Hole". One hopes that this isn't the end. 2016's Forever Sounds was noisier and less cohesive than previous albums Strawberry and Attica!, but it signaled a shifting aesthetic that finds full realization here. If the band keeps moving forward, there's no telling where they'll end up, but it's bound to be worth the trip.

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