When a musician reimagines their own previously released songs, it can be tempting to place a greater importance on the new versions, as if they are somehow “truer” expressions of those ideas. There’s so much music in the world, and if an artist themselves gives us permission to overlook their older work by saying, “Actually, here’s the version you really need to listen to,” doesn’t that put our finite time and focus where it should be? The question begged by Always Repeating—the Run For Cover Records debut of Runnner, aka Los Angeles-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Noah Weinman—is, what if the connection between the old and new—that act of looking back and wishing things were different, or looking ahead to when what is becomes what will be—is what matters most? What if the picky listener who prefers the shiny, new update and the stodgy purist who swears by a song’s simplest form are both missing the point?
Always Repeating stretches the definition of the word “new,” as if by design: The first five tracks, including singles “Monochrome,” “Urgent Care” and “Awash,” are re-recorded versions of songs that first appeared on Weinman’s 2017 debut Awash, while the second five tracks are his 2020 One of One (or Two of Two, now, I guess) EP, included in sequence. Weinman is moving through time not only in revisiting these songs, but also in the songs themselves, looking back on times, people and places gone by, or ahead to what he hopes is waiting around the next corner. “Move around / Split the season,” he sings on “Awash,” as if accustomed to spending all his time in liminal spaces; later, on “Ur Name on a Grain of Rice,” he frets, “And I should call but I’m afraid / of what you’re gonna say / notice all the ways I’ve changed / and all the ways I’ve stayed the same,” his fear encompassing the past, present and future, all at once. The emotions Weinman sings about are always with him, always repeating—wherever he goes, there they are.
From the beginning of the album, Weinman—who moved between Providence, Los Angeles and New York while writing and recording these songs—is ill at ease with where he is, and wondering where he should be: “It snowed last night / back in Ohio / I’m in L.A. and warm / but it’s so fucking dry, though,” he sings on opening track (but final single) “Monochrome” over acoustic guitar strums, banjo plucks, synth hum, soft horns and spare percussion, the formula that holds Always Repeating together. The album’s production is as cohesive as Weinman’s songwriting is peripatetic—he slips in and out of memories, singing, “It’s Halloween / We’re in your kitchen / Talking shit about our friends and eating chicken / You went upstairs / I stole outside.” These moments fall apart as quickly as they come together, which is the ultimate strength and weakness of these songs: Joy only ever flickers around the edges of them, hidden in the deep, dark shadows of anxiety and insecurity. The best you can hope for is to see your own loneliness reflected back at you—which, for some, is all the company you could ever need.
Though lyrically, Weinman struggles to keep both feet planted in the present moment, you would never know it from his instrumentals (and vocals, which are consistently stronger and more confident here); as aforementioned, Always Repeating has an extremely well-defined palette of sounds, and it counterweights Weinman’s journeys through time with an essential sense of stability. It also ensures unity between his newly imagined Awash tracks and the (seemingly unchanged) One of One songs, which fit together seamlessly even though, in theory, since they each inhabit a half of the album, they didn’t have to. The most important quality Weinman imbues his Awash updates with is also the hardest to define—there is a certain hum that animates this album, like the feeling of sunlight on your skin, and though it was present to a far lesser extent on the original versions, namely “Awash,” it’s one of Always Repeating’s most beautiful qualities, an aural warming you miss when it occasionally recedes. It’s as if Weinman wanted to conjure the tranquil, fulfilling glow he himself yearned for when he wrote these songs, lost and lonely.
There are other differences, of course. The prominent harmonica and uncertain falsetto vocals of “Trundle Bed” are nowhere to be found, the “Urgent Care” drums replaced by a drum machine—on the former, Weinman sings, “Is it quiet where you are? / Are you finding peace of mind?” as if realizing that we don’t belong in places so much as we belong with people. The Always Repeating iteration of Awash opener “Bodysurfing” loses its distorted guitar riff and high-pitched synths, instead opting for swirling acoustic chords, an oceanic drum machine beat (its handclaps blunted almost beyond recognition), and delicate banjo and keys, a gorgeous blend befitting Weinman’s internal rhyme-rich lyrics: “Salted stone, sinking slow, overthrown, undertowed / Slid upstream silently, no retreat through the crease.” Weinman sounds most as peace on songs like this and “Awash,” in which he sounds adrift, out of control, yet held by something far bigger than himself. If time is a river that only flows in one direction, then what Weinman yearns for is an ocean that flows in every direction at once, becoming so constantly, it’s as if it just is.
Scott Russell is Paste’s music editor and he’ll come up with something clever later. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.