Where the 2000s saw an explosion of folk groups, the second decade of the new millennium has so far been characterized by a couple of great dreampop records and a lot of subpar ones. Originality is hard to achieve when everyone’s dedicated to exploring the exact same sonic playground. Beach Fossils, DIIV and Real Estate are the sleepy, echo-driven revival’s triumvirate, but Jack Tatum’s Wild Nothing proves again that four is better than three with his new EP, Empty Estate.
The thing that sets all those bands apart is how their dreamscapes are far more lucid than any others on the market. There’s a sense of gravity to the floating wonder, a GPS for meandering guitars. It helps that the direction they’re all heading is up. Each release has proven to be more mature, exploratory and vibrant than the last.
Wild Nothing first started gaining traction with a cover of “Cloudbusting” by Kate Bush back in 2009. Then came the requisite daydream sunshine song, “Summer Holiday,” a strummy, Brooklynite rooftop party anthem later featured on the band’s debut LP, Gemini. That first record was one of particular and intentional understatement, populated by songs like the quiet kids at the back of the classroom, specimens of shy genius. The follow-up LP, Nocturne, saw Tatum learning to raise his hand and speak up. The songs were just as intelligent as the former album’s but more confident and demonstrative. Both records were received with rave reviews.
When Empty Estate opens with crunchy guitars and oscillating synths, you can tell Tatum no longer has any time for the quiet introspection of his first releases. On “The Body in Rainfall,” the percussion is more thwappy and snare-heavy, and so are the rest of the instruments. That’s not to say this is his “it might get loud” release because it’s still punctuated by whispery tones. But these punctuation marks have gone from run-on commas to self-aware periods, and here he’s heading for exclamation points.
“Ocean Repeating (Big-Eyed Girl)” has the best qualities of many a second song. There’s intensified riffing intent on snapping the listener to attention. Bands like Wild Nothing spend some time meandering as part of their MO, so Tatum knows he needs at least a couple straightforward tracks to anchor and bolster the listener’s experience. But third track “On Guyot” is a little too sure of itself, a little too confident that “Ocean Repeating” has us rapt enough to be able to wander along with his swirling, where-are-we-heading synths with no North Star.
“Ride” is a little too close to Washed Out’s sound, from synthesizers to vocals, to consider this a success for Tatum experimenting with chillwave. “Data World” is where the record really picks up steam again, the run-along bass stealing the spotlight. The guitar-synth interplay here should put you through the roof. The same goes for “A Dancing Shell,” whose depressed moanings, “I’m not a human / I’m just a body/ Just a dancing shell,” are highlighted by a dance beat all about defeating the melancholy its lyrics perpetuate. “Hachiko” does its walkabout a little better than “On Guyot” but still leaves you wishing the record could have ended on a more upbeat, decisive note.
Tatum’s songs don’t yearn for home like so many other songwriters’. Instead, they try to decorate the empty estates modern life forces us to live in with echoes and sound. Some rooms are going to be more prone to renovation than others, and the EP is filled with hits and misses. It’s no Nocturne or Gemini, but Tatum still proves to be a visionary consistent in his trajectory of progressing confidence. It’s hard to call this a misstep at all, but its best quality is keeping hope alive for what will come next.