Wye Oak – Civilian (Music Review)

Civilian cover

Wye Oak - Civilian

I was introduced to Wye Oak through song samples on the internet. The band makes an excellent first impression, with a mellow, ethereal sound that hints at meaning just beyond the listener’s grasp. Singer Jenn Wasner’s trancelike voice is calm and confident, and bandmate Andy Stack is an inventive musician. The dark but beautiful style leaves an impression of something like Portishead backing up the Delgados.

When I bought their album Civilian, though, I was immediately disappointed. Wye Oak is as talented as that initial exposure implied, but the promised meaning behind the songs never came through. The consistently mellow music didn’t make it easy to stay invested in exploring the songs, and Wasner’s voice began to sound more and more like someone singing through a mouthful of cotton. There are some brilliant moments, such as when “Dogs Eyes” implies that a human spark in other animals could cause crises of faith for both believers and non-believers. But even that song has nothing left to say after the first 40 seconds. In general, this is an album that makes you work hard to find meaning, but rarely offers enough to make it worthwhile.

I’ve been listening to Cilvilian for a few months now, always thinking that I was almost to the point where I could write a thorough review. More recently, I’ve started to come around to appreciating it again. Like a koan, the key step is in accepting the lack of purpose to the lyrics. Once that has happened, you can truly appreciate the music. This holds up under an audiophile’s scrutiny, but would fit in equally well in a department store background. Simple time-keeping beats usually let the focus stay on Wasner’s voice, but occasionally rises above it and builds to memorable crescendos. While the lyrics may not have much purpose, the vocals and instrumentation of this two-person band blend together seamlessly for the greater whole.

It’s difficult for me to review an album I’ve had such disparate reactions to. I’ve seen other people in all three of the phases I went through, and I’m not sure that there’s one correct “final” conclusion. I enjoy Civilian now, but I’m not sure if it was worth the effort I went through to reach this point. I can already imagine the next phase of my relationship to the album: I won’t feel compelled to listen to it much more now that I’ve reviewed it, and it will get lost in my music collection. Every now and then I’ll get a pleasant surprise from rediscovering it, but I’ll put it aside again after another listen. Those times it resurfaces for me will be as fleeting and inconclusive as Wasner’s voice.

Grade: C+

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