An album that begs to be listened to on a rainy day, its depth and control of empty space the perfect complement for such gray conditions.
Not every change in music is a great leap forward. Some bands lurch forward with enough gusto to blindside the listener, but others make it so subtle, you’d never know they hadn’t always sounded that way. For those who have followed Kurt Wagner’s Lambchop, the cover of their 14th album (it’s actually their 13th, but they didn’t want to jinx themselves) This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) is a subtle nod to his shifting vision of the band. It’s Wagner, gracing the cover for the first time, and his balding head, for once devoid of the hat that has become so linked to his personal style, on full display.
The shift happened all at once, but only ever felt like an augmentation of their already-established palette. 2016’s FLOTUS added flourishes of electronic arrangement, Wagner’s voice almost entirely swapped for some of the most aurally-pleasing autotune you could ask for, something like Bill Callahan doing his best 808’s & Heartbreak-era Kanye West. Lambchop may be largely freed of their alt-country leanings, but their soft aesthetic isn’t going anywhere. Like most of Lambchop’s albums, This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) is a strikingly likable album, full of gentle arrangements that don’t operate as you’d expect them to, instrumentation sprinkled asymmetrically throughout each song. The lush electronics are back, which, combined with Tony Crow’s twinkling keys, are crucial to the album. Opener “The New Isn’t So You Anymore” is an elegant rush of both, with Wagner’s whirring voice—still soft as ever—cooing obliquely: “Let’s start again like stupid children/ Sir, I’m afraid that’s not possible.” The remainder of the album follows this warm palette, even as it dips into soft house dance numbers like “Everything for You,” or the almost sinister minor keys of “This is What I Wanted to Tell You.”
Wagner is, as always, the master of soulful but puzzling lyrics that sound like conversations only partially overheard at parties: “It’s been a fucking lovely day,” The air is heavy now and I should be listening to you/ The light is changing and a mouse is on the porch,” “That spelling grandma was a bitch,” “Michael Jackson told me/ That Santa Claus is coming to town.” The news is also a frequent topic; FLOTUS was released four days before the 2016 Presidential election, and since then, the climate has changed considerably. “This is the new not normal,” he declares in “The Air Is Heavy and I Should Be Listening to You.” Wagner isn’t one to deliver anything with anger, but his own brand of unrest still comes through: “I’m back on my corrections/ Searching for a news in a newspaper,” he begins on “The New Isn’t So You Anymore.” Later, in “Everything for You,” he declares, “The news was fake, the drugs were real.” He’s as political as anyone else, but his tone drives home a sense of dissociation, as though his only way to cope with the world is to discuss it in abstract.
This also finds space to gracefully address the subject of aging, and though gentle, the impact of his woes still feel potent. For “This is What I Wanted to Tell You,” Wagner finally lets his Auto-Tune evaporate, his naked voice aiding in a lyrical gut-puncher about the dissolution of a romance: “And just like that the air began to feel different/ And the light hit things just right/ And I became so easy/ And just like that we fell.” The absence of Auto-Tune here evokes the feeling of a mask being removed, leaving nothing to hide his pleas of “Baby, please come back.” His Auto-Tune stays gone for the final song, “Flowers,” which explores—in the most Wagner-esque fashion—explores his existential dread: “Some go by choice/ Some go by disease/ Give me back my Christian name/ That cigarette isn’t gonna smoke itself.”
This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) begs to be listened to on headphones on a rainy day, its depth and control of empty space the perfect complement for such gray conditions. This is the album’s only downfall: its unobtrusive textures make it difficult to grab hold of, leaving you tempted to put it on in the background of your next low-key party. But for those willing to let themselves nestle into the soft spaces between notes and phrases, every passing listen will reveal more beautiful—and uniquely satisfying—touches in every song. Time will tell how much more changing Lambchop does, but however they do it, it’ll undoubtedly be just as beautiful as This.