When Whitney released “No Woman”—the first of two singles off of their debut album Light Upon the Lake—it seemed too good to be their first release. The track was just the right meld of expertly noodly guitar leads, faint falsettos, lullaby piano and bombastic horns. In reality, it’s not truly the band’s first effort.
Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich, Whitney’s songwriting duo, have been preparing to release this debut album since shortly after their last band, the Smith Westerns, split in 2014.
The Smith Westerns were kind of the princes of underground-esque indie rock, carrying the mantle of the slurry, dream pop sound made popular in the early 2010s with bands like Beach Fossils and Washed Out. When they broke up, members splintered into two different projects: lead singer Cullen Omori’s solo work, which sounds decidedly more inline with the band’s old stuff, and Whitney.
To forge this band, Julien adopted the role of singer and co-songwriter. This was a new role for Julien, who had also previously spent time as drummer for Unknown Mortal Orchestra, but he assumed it confidently.
When writing songs together, Max and Julien developed a persona: Whitney is a lonely guy who drinks too much and lives alone. It was probably a pretty easy idea to embody. Both Max and Julien are quick to admit that the songs for Light Upon the Lake were written in the midst of consecutive breakups. They felt a little bit like Whitney, so they built Light Upon the Lake as a bit of a concept album.
There are some songs, such as the title track, that play as more of a bridge between others. “Light Upon the Lake” is a tranquil pause between the high-energy of wiggly guitar jam “Dave’s Song” and “No Matter Where We Go,” one where the instrumentation really picks up to high-speed, in relation to the rest of the bluesier, reflective piece. In it, Julien’s tape-recorded vocals lay over a thumby bass line as he sings, slightly unconcerned about how much things can change right in front of your eyes—and wonders if he can keep up.
The album echoes like someone on the verge of being over it. “I know how to keep you hung up but I won’t do it again / All I know I wish you were my friend,” sings Julien in “Dave’s Song,” a clear indication that there’s a light at the end of whatever tunnel he’s been trudging through. Then, there are parts, like the jazz-infused horns and hoppy bass line in “On My Own” that make it too bright to be a sad song, despite lyrics like “I can’t sleep alone when you’re on my mind.”
The weird thing about labeling this record as a breakup album is that it’s both accurate and—paradoxically—widely off-base.It’s not angsty, or hastily prepared in a few drunken nights off of some fit of red-eyed nostalgia. Sure, literally speaking all of the songs off of Light Upon the Lake conjure up failure to maintain a relationship with a loved one, but how can you relate a new band’s debut record—and one that’s so so fully realized to the point of even having a mission statement in the Whitney, as a man, as a writing prompt and concept—with a break up? If anything, it’s the start of something new.
As listeners, we weren’t there to see Max and Julien parsing through once-shared record collections with their exes. We didn’t see tears. We don’t even know names or faces. Sure, we can relate to the feelings behind the lyrics on songs like “No Woman” and “Golden Days,” because everyone everywhere has been there. We can understand the sparkling hope in the music behind these lyrics, too, because once the dust clears, there is joy in knowing you came out on the other end of heartbreak. But it’s not a breakup album, because we’re just meeting Whitney, and we like them too fucking much to end it.