At first blush, the conceit behind Cotton Mather’s recent work is something of an eye-roller: Robert Harrison is writing 64 songs to correspond with the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching, a 3,000 year old Chinese mystic text. In the Austin band’s 20-plus years, they’ve never wanted for good ideas, so the idea of the I Ching project comes off as either a) a gimmicky attempt to end a creative dry spell, or b) a hokey foray into eastern philosophy as a shorthand for spiritual depth.
Listening to Wild Kingdom and its 2016 predecessor Death of the Cool, the first I Ching album, though, reveals option c): a writing exercise more akin to The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs than to Madonna’s espousal of Kabbalah. Harrison is first and foremost a dedicated songwriter, not a moralist or performance artist. Accordingly, the 11 songs that make up Wild Kingdom don’t proselytize or even really seek to illuminate the I Ching, but instead use it as a launching off point for Harrison’s musings.
So, faced with the 13th hexagram, Fellowship, Harrison wryly offers the leadoff track, “The Cotton Mather Pledge,” a stomping rocker laced with a Cars-worthy keyboard hook and anchored by the rallying cry “It’s rock ‘n’ roll!” Later, hexagram seven: The Army animates the sprawling track “The Army,” and so on.
Cotton Mather knits together a range of styles on Wild Kingdom. “Hijnks Dad” [Hexagram 56: The Wanderer] and “Girl With a Blue Guitar” [Hexagram 53: A Steady Pace] are both light, no-frills guitar-pop. “Better Than A Hit” glides along on a slinky bass groove and an album’s worth of guitar sounds. And the record closes with “I Volunteer,” which finds Harrison channeling the bounce of early Motown.
The album reaches its high point with “High Society,” [Hexagram 9: Small Influences] a meditation on the life and fate of a “peat bog man” -a corpse found partially preserved in a swamp. In just over three minutes, the song wends its way through smoky, ominous verses, pounding choruses and a furious, explosive instrumental bridge, before stalking to a close on a dark piano riff.
Despite its stylistic diversity, Wild Kingdom hangs together well thanks to Harrison’s distinctive songwriting. He consistently steers melodies in unexpected directions, and makes each line flow even while stuffing it with more syllables than it ought to hold. Further, he’s skillful enough to invest songs with real humor, even without saying a word; the acoustic guitar that opens “King William” [Hexagram 37: Extended Family] nods to the band’s innumerable Beatles comparisons by quoting a measure of “Across the Universe” before veering off. One of the atmospheric barks in the background of “High Society” unmistakably mimics the intro to “Sympathy for the Devil.”
With the exception of “High Society,” none of the songs on Wild Kingdom competes with Cotton Mather’s best work. There’s nothing as immediately arresting as “My Before and After” or as achingly lovely as “Lily Dreams On.” There’s no moment of transcendent harmony to match “40 Watt Solution.” Still Cotton Mather’s willingness to monkey with sounds—a distorted vocal here, warbly production there—while firmly rooting the music in smart melodies and lyrics makes Wild Kingdom a satisfying listen: heady, catchy, fun and just surprising enough.