Woods Play to Their Strengths on Strange to Explain

After their longest hiatus to date, Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taverniere return with an album that feels comfortably settled into its strengths

Music Reviews Woods
Woods Play to Their Strengths on Strange to Explain

“Woods is dead. Long live Woods!” This has been the refrain echoing through the brunt of the psychedelic folk-rockers’ now-imposing discography. Over 15 years, they’ve produced 11 full records alongside a handful of EPs, singles and side projects, morphing between jammy lo-fi dogmatism, crisp studio psychedelia, Ethiopian jazz accents and political overtones.

Their latest record represents the biggest gap between albums in the band’s history (three years)—not that the group hasn’t been busy, collaborating with Dungen and playing with the late David Berman in Purple Mountains—but stylistically, it feels like the group’s smallest leap.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The band’s last album, 2017’s Love is Love, sounded to many like a well-intentioned but perhaps overly-earnest misstep, with lyrics like “I am the wind, love’s not dead” dropping with the subtlety of a 10-ton anvil onto their usual cryptic breeziness. This album tightened up what’s worked in the past for the group, harkening back to the tamer sides of City Sun.

For the most part, the songs are compact, with only the closing instrumental, “Weekend Wind,” passing the six-minute mark. Jeremy Earl’s falsetto is at its most confident and versatile, gliding over tunes that explore the headspace newfound fatherhood has brought him. Ephemerality, powerlessness, absence, and sleep (or lack of it) swirl through this record with varying degrees of detachment, frustration and acceptance.

One of the album’s best songs, “Before They Pass By,” offers a dense ode to the latter. Its meaning hides under ambiguous layers of anonymous “I”s, “You”s and “They”s, but a warm spirit in the face of melancholy realities shines through. Passing by, letting go, moving on—the song centers around the flux of life and the anxiety of maneuvering it with someone else as both you and those around you inevitably embrace change: “I return you into the night sky / with our heads on empty / ‘Cause tomorrow it’s time to let go.” The bouncing rhythm of the song and wobbly tones of the mellotron keep the moodier side of the lyrics from becoming too transparent, a dichotomy that’s been one of Woods’ signature strengths over the years—they’ve maintained a reputation for having an upbeat sound while also having a lyricist whose darker fixations have been fairly evident since at least 2009’s Songs of Shame.

A similar wistfulness carries through to songs like “Strange to Explain,” “Just to Fall Asleep,” and the album’s penultimate “Be There Still,” a standout track that’s worth the listen just to hear the mellotron kick in at the 22-second mark. Meanwhile, the push-pull force of “Fell so Hard” reminds us not to write Woods off as going soft with age. The same can’t be said of “Can’t Get Out,” another of the album’s louder cuts. It’s anchored by some gloriously fuzzy bass that starts the song and more or less carries it through, but the music never seems to rise above this potential. Perhaps it’s intentional, but the track fixating on the inability to bring oneself to action, for all its well-verbalized frustration, comes off as stuck in midgear and anemic compared to the catharsis it reaches for.

But this is the exception, not the rule, on an album whose surreal landscapes, cerebral meditations and an overall psychedelic campfire atmosphere proves why more Woods isn’t a bad thing, even when it’s more of the same.

Jack Meyer is an editorial intern at Paste and student in New York. He enjoys literature, philosophy, music, and low earnings potential out of college.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin