Pitchfork rating: 9.5
My rating: 7.6
It’s one thing to listen to a canonized album for the first time. It’s quite another thing to listen to an album canonized for how emotionally resonant it is. You don’t want to go into an album with too many preconceived notions, but if it has a reputation for tear-jerking and is a fixture on “Most Depressing Albums of All-Time” lists, it’s hard not to have high expectations of feeling low.
The Meadowlands, the third album by New Jersey output is one of those emotionally canonized albums. Arriving seven years after their sophomore effort, Secaucus, it’s my first exposure to the band. It also seems to be the most acclaimed of their three albums, which is impressive, considering I don’t typically expect emo-leaning bands to release their crowning achievements more than a decade into the career. (I did greatly enjoy the latest Brand New album, however).
Just a glance at the album’s sepia artwork of a house in an unkempt yard is enough to bring you down, to say nothing of its tracklisting, featuring the likes of “The House That Guilt Built,” “Hopeless,” “Ex-Girl Collection” and “Happy,” which of course does nothing to conjure up Pharrell Williams. It’s a breakup album that focuses not just on the pain of losing someone but also how their absence can feel like a crater in your life as well as in your heart. On opener, “The House That Guilt Built,” crickets and passing-by cars accompany steady acoustic guitar and Charles Bissell’s tender falsetto. This prelude ends with a perfect thesis for the album: “I can’t believe what life’s done to me.”
Bissell alternates vocals duties with brothers Kevin and Greg Whelan. On “Happy,” you can feel Kevin’s vocals gradually shift from composed to wretched. He begins with “You’re the one I want. You’re a chance to take. You’re a hard break” over drummer Jerry MacDonald’s steady tom beat. He becomes increasingly tormented and his voice rips apart with the embittered self-realization, “I was wrong.” He still feels the urge to cast aspersions on the other person, asking “Are you happy now?” in the most cutting tone possible.
The Meadowlands is riddled with spite. On “Hopeless,” a jaunty guitar melody is contrasted by Kevin’s raspy delivery: “And now you’re sorry for the things to you did to me” before Bissell comes in with a full-on emo wail in the chorus as he tells them, “Go thank yourself for nothing. It’s really all you’re good for.” Even though it never gets that bitter again, it’s permeated with resentment. Much of the anger is pointed inwards, focusing on the narrator’s inability to move on and better himself. “Thirteen Grand” has a heavenly arrangement of piano, strings and ethereal vocals as Greg seems to be coming to terms with his selfish behavior: “I lived my life waiting for tomorrow, but I guess it’s your turn now.” That song has potential to end the album on a hopeful and (relatively) uplifting note. However, the Wrens take an admirable chance by putting it in the middle and making it clear there won’t be any clean emotional getaways on this album.
Following that, the piano chords and Kevin’s raspy vocals on “Boys, You Won’t” sound like Spoon if Britt Daniel desperately wanted his ex to know he was “fine” without her. “Ex-Girl Collection” is a catalog of past relationship and all the stress they caused. On penultimate, near-seven minute track “13 Months in Six Minutes,” Bissell sounds wistful and absolutely defeated as he reflects on the progression of his relationship, from courtship to dissolution and confesses “Wish we could just make out.” The title of the crudely recorded piano-lead closer, “This Is Not What You Had Planned” more or less sums up the preceding eleven tracks, as Kevin reaches his harshest wail before becoming tender to close things out.
As much as I enjoyed this album, it’s unlikely to become a melancholy favorite. I enjoyed every track to some degree and admired how much warmth it has at times, like on the bandmates-referencing “This Boy Is Exhausted” and the fuzzy energy of back-to-back tracks “Per Second Second” and “Everyone Chooses Sides.” On a whole, I found it easier to admire than to become fully invested in. While all three are captivating vocalists, the lyrics tend to be too surface level to really sink in.
Whether I find The Meadowlands to be The Wrens’ crowning achievement depends on when I get around to listening to their other two albums. I found it to be a well-crafted album with plenty of memorable moments, mainly courtesy of the vocals. If I was at all disappointed, it’s because its reputation preceded it. Even if something doesn’t hit all the emotional bullseyes, it doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.