Waldemar Sculpt Ruthless Into an Emotional Epic
On the Eau Claire band’s full-length debut, singer/songwriter Gabe Larson traces the origins of his sorrowsMusic Reviews Waldemar
There is always room for a good time. As much as the world needs thick-skulled musicians creating triumphant clarion calls towards the mission of keeping the party alive, there is also a need for commiseration in the low times. Seeing yourself within sad art proves that you are not some invisible apparition. Your moping posture can still force the air to move around you. On the slow-burn “Summer Rain” from Eau Claire, Wisconsin band Waldemar’s debut album, singer Gabe Larson ponders the validity of this argument—as the glacially paced Americana of the song peaks into spectral crescendos on its chorus. “Am I anything without my pain?” he questions. In fact, it’s records like this one that remind us that our melancholia—whether inherited or otherwise—ties us to reality.
Each of the eleven songs on Ruthless build with a towering sense of ache and purpose. Written and recorded over a laborious five-year period since their debut Visions EP in 2017, Larson spent nearly all of his time working outdoor jobs—like sanding floors and driving a children’s school bus building a professional studio in a century-old horse stable—with his brother and bandmate Nick. This salt-of-the-Earth, working-man’s background bleeds into his poetry on the sparse country balladry of “Union,” as he labels love a “struggle” worth enduring. The musical tone of the album isn’t really out-of-place with a certain kind of grandiose, ‘80s AOR-tinged alt-country that has been popularized by the likes of The War On Drugs and Strand of Oaks. But there is dedication to filling in every space left between the notes from Larson, and the band elevates this project from simply paying homage.
A lonesome pedal steel guitar whines over gated drums and deep, resonant piano chords on the aforementioned “Summer Rain.” Elsewhere, the title track allows Larson to slice through the densely constructed orchestration with rust-coated guitar solos over a stomping anthem worthy of pre-experimental-era Talk Talk. The band enters that territory later, as the industrial-leaning instrumental on “Prophets” keeps the listener second guessing as the album progresses.
Larson’s rich tenor is a thing to behold and is ultimately what elevates this project to its many spectacular heights. At times it can feel as if Jim James’ buttery croon was folded in with Van Morrison’s penchant for taking courageous melodic risks. But, perhaps the closest comparison to make would be to the idiosyncratic style of Miracle Legion and Polaris singer Mark Mulcahy. Particularly, on the opener “Limbo,” Larson’s voice echoes the amount of soul Mulcahy could wrench out of the simplest phrases. Each refrain of “I’m caught low in limbo” transforms subtly with every verse, feeling like a weathered rallying cry upon the song’s conclusion.
His emotive voice is in full force on the nakedly acoustic “Waldemar,” which allows him to explain the significance of the name behind the project. In the song, he paints a portrait of his paternal grandfather, a Depression-era farmer whose brother returned from the war rattled to his core. Larson wears a hand-me-down shirt with the name stitched into it and thinks about whether it was the dire economic situation at home or the apocalyptic circumstances that caused his grandfather’s depression. At its conclusion, Larson considers whether or not he will be able to break the cycle as he keeps the family tree alive: “If I’m a carrier I drag it behind me” he sings, wondering if his lineage is the reason why he has a hard time getting out of bed. He questions if his future grandson will wear his old clothes and contemplate the same thing.
The sheer scope of the record is perhaps its Achilles heel. At an hour and seven minutes over 11 tracks, the bloat of Ruthless can cause it to drag in certain stretches. This is especially evident when the most uptempo track on the album—the wistful Jackson Browne-evoking “Longing”—doesn’t appear until the eighth spot. You can’t fault Larson for letting each composition ruminate and build to its logical conclusion. But when only one track on the album proves its point before the four-minute mark—with the majority stretching out well past five or six minutes—giving Ruthless a full listen in one sitting takes dedication. If there was ever a case for a tight, seven-song album with a four-song companion EP, this would definitely be the case. That is the downfall of spending the amount of time and effort into such a monolithic recording. It’s hard to avoid sentimental value on certain pieces that feel like structural necessities to the whole, when, in actuality, leaving some cargo at the shore would only make way for smoother sailing.
The album’s 10-minute closer “Trust” opens with a spoken-word sermon over a bed of gorgeous country ambient swells before launching into a moment of triumph. In the song’s closing lines Larson proclaims: “All I am is dust to dust / All I require is ruthless trust.” It’s a proper mission statement of an artist who knows that the answers don’t come easy, but he still needs the assurance that peace will come when the work is done. With Ruthless, Larson has established himself as a captivating balladeer and a meticulous craftsman. It’s an impressive debut in a way that truly matters. Larson and Waldemar have put in the work to frequently make great statements that inspire excitement on what they could build next.
Pat King is a Philadelphia-based journalist. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, which he will not shut up about. You can follow him at @MrPatKing.