In 2004, not long before Wussy released their first album, Kanye West sang, “You know what the Midwest is? Young and restless”. After sixteen years (as a group) and seven studio albums, Cincinnati’s Wussy may not qualify as young any more, but they are still staunchly Midwestern. And, surprisingly, they’ve managed to become even more restless.
Wussy started out as an alt-countryish foursome (Singer/Guitarist Chuck Cleaver, Singer/Guitarist Lisa Walker, Bassist Mark Messerly and Drummer Dawn Burman). Their sound morphed as they expanded into a five piece (with Drummer Joe Klug replacing Burman and John Erhardt joining on pedal steel and guitar). Along the way they gained the attention of legendary critic Robert Christgau who tagged them the “Best Band in America.” They started strong and every album has shown progress in songwriting and performance skills. But even longtime fans may be surprised at their evolution on the extraordinary new album What Heaven is Like. Maybe the easiest approach is to take it apart track by track.
At first, you might not be sure you have the right album cued up. The first track (“One Per Customer”) comes on like latter day Wilco or Radiohead. Then, Chuck Cleaver’s unmistakable voice punctures the gauze and erases any doubt. Sonics wash dreamily as he gets right to it, “Don’t you wish you could have been an astronaut/back when astronauts had more appeal?” Forget being a rock star- in 2018 even being an astronaut isn’t what it once was. You can feel the band stretching out, beautifully continuing to expand their sonic palette. Guitars distort and Lisa’s voice joins Chuck’s as they sing, “Sorry sir, there’s only one per customer” over and over like a mantra until they bite down on the phrase and let plinking keyboards, pedal steel and martial drums wash over them. It’s ambitious, surprising and exhilarating.
And that’s just the start. Over and over, they defy expectations and break new ground. At times there are fleeting echoes of Big Star (circa “Kangaroo” or “Holocaust”), U2, Aimee Mann, Peter Laughner, Tom Petty, Syd Barret-era Pink Floyd and Velvet Underground along with non-musical sources like the graphic novel “Black Hole” by Charles Burns. You can feel them absorbing influences, combining them with their prodigious skills and channeling everything to form their own unique sound.
The tempos move from leisurely to charging and back again; things never quite settle down. “Cake” ups the ante and immediately kicks into gear with a curtain of pedal steel-squall. The band pushes at the edges until the energy and tone crackle like mid-era R.E.M. Then things shift radically on what may be their most startling track, “Gloria”. It’s not so much the stylistic differences or subject matter of the song as the epic sweep of it. There’s an orchestral, bruised beauty that feels like something Phil Spector might have produced in his more restrained moments. But they can’t hold the quiet center and the guitars burn, accented by synths and touches of Springsteen-ish glockenspiel tones. The ache is palpable as Lisa sings, “She believes in something brighter than the darkness that surrounds.” Even then, she’s unsure: “Is she a phantom or a memory or the girl that you once kissed?”
“Tall Weeds“ is the most familiar sonic touchstone here, but even it feels swampier and more Southern than their earlier works. The lyrics are oblique and there’s something vaguely unsettling in the way they sing, “Look away, look away don’t watch me/from the tall weeds”. It’s not clear if someone’s about to go skinny dipping or get dragged into the woods and disappear. Maybe both. Maybe neither. Maybe you can just take the lyrics at face value. It all depends what side of the weeds you’re on and how much you want to read into things.
“Firefly” slow-rumbles like early Cat Power with a simple narcotic beauty that’s as languid as a summer night watching the long rays of the sun go down, light points bursting as the stars emerge in the darkening sky.
“Aliens in Our Midst” (a cover of the 1977 Twinkeyz song and a gem on their live tour last year) barrels along as the band locks into a groove and Chuck sings with gleeful abandon, “There’s aliens in our midst! There’s aliens in our midst! There- there’s aliens in our midst!”
“Skip” swells as Lisa’s voice sweeps from soft hush to ethereal crooning/swooning. This wouldn’t have been out of place on mid- ‘90s 120 Minutes next to Lush and Ride. It’s shoe gaze- if your shoes are mud-spattered work boots.
“Oblivion” (the second cover on the album, originally performed by Kath Bloom) has the faint bones of songs like Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good” and Tom Petty’s “Breakdown.” Wussy rework the spare, skeletal original to flesh it out with guitars that growl like Neil Young. Lisa’s growth as a singer is stunning and this may be her finest moment yet. She holds just the right balance as her voice soars with beautiful control from low to high and back again. There’s pain and sadness and strength as she sings,” But you’ve got your bottle/And I’ve got my misery”.
“Nope” swings hard with breathtaking ambition and production. Beautiful layers of late-60s guitars swirl as Chuck sardonically sings about everyday things like the guilt of edging your car up so you don’t have to look at the homeless man with his sign at the intersection. Or the value of a famous life compared to your neighbor’s: “Crying as the legends die and I understand the loss/what about the woman down the block? / It was weeks before they discovered her because she lived alone/and all that you could manage was, ‘Well, that’s the way it goes.” A layered chorus of angelic Lisas chants underneath as treated vocals intone,” Open your eyes/get out of bed/you’re nearly dead/you’re nearly dead”.
“Black Hole” closes the album in a somber, reflective mood. Listeners looking for an uplifting coda are in the wrong place. The album fades out with Lisa singing, “It’s the last time around/It’s the last time around”.
That would be a shame.
You get the sense that this band is capable of just about anything now. Only a handful of groups have delivered such a strong body of work at this level for so long. Even great acts like R.E.M., Wilco and U2 couldn’t manage to string together seven strong albums in a row.
And nobody is better at capturing what it’s like to be from this part of the world.
The sweet ache of knowing you can stretch your arms Midwest-wide and your fingertips will never brush the coasts.
The soft reassurance you are the center of the country and it radiates out from you.
Steel, rust, fatigue laced with leaping joy.
Fireflies and snow on fair grounds and baseball fields.
Burnt out campfires.
Hanging out at the Pizza King drinking beer between paychecks in the neon glow of a burnt out, sticky summer.
And, regardless of how long you’ve been at it, getting up to work, pushing.
Eternally restless and yearning.
Burning from where you’re from.