Returning from an unduly long hiatus, iconic indie rockers the Wrens explain the nature of their absence with a thematically different but nonetheless remarkable follow-up to 1996’s Seacaucus. Whereas Seacaucus was a warm ray of power-pop sunshine, The Meadowlands is a dark cloud that rains down the hardships endured over the past seven years. The Wrens explore loss in relationships, the bleakness of the workaday life and the harsh choices that aging artists face as they struggle to balance “art” with “career.” All are topics that speak volumes about the lives of the four New Jersey musicians who have been the Wrens since the late ’80s.
The Meadowlands is the third full-length from the Wrens, which, aside from an EP in 1998, has been missing in action since a debacle with record label management left the band without a contract or promotional support in the midst of a European tour. After the Wrens refused to agree to a more mainstream-friendly working agreement with the new millionaire executive at Grass Records, which released Seacaucus and would later become Wind-up Records, future home of big-ticket hoaxes Creed and Evanescence, the new management promptly dismissed the band and several employees closely affiliated with it.
The fiasco began the hiatus between Seacaucus and The Meadowlands, a grim period where the band members spent more time in court than on stage. Returning to light with this 13-song gem of self-reflection and bittersweet wisdom, the Wrens defied greed in favor of integrity. The payoff is not in record sales, but in the effect the album will have on fans old and new.
Stocked full of heart-wrenching libretto, the strength of the album is truly in its inspired lyrics. On “Boys, You Won’t,” Charles Bissell sings how “Well I stood up / I faced another round.” It’s an apt description of the significance of The Meadowlands, a record of woes and heartache from a narrator who has “got a wife and kid / that I never see / and I’m nowhere near / what I dreamed I’d be.”
Bissell’s dreamy, whisper-drenched voice is often harmonized with the other three Wrens; at other times it’s virtually drowned out by the instrumentation. The sweeping melodies incurred from the double-packed string-section hooks float like ether over the sometimes driving, sometimes lullaby percussion.
At all times, the music serves as a distraction from the beauty inherit in the lyrics of The Meadowlands, with more up-tempo songs such as “Per Second Second” nearly drowning the vocals. The result is a hushed sensibility about the lessons learned within, forcing the listener to repeat tracks and study liner notes.
This somewhat possessive approach yields a sense of genuine honesty, and in the songs of lost loves, such as the synth-to-guitar time-bomb “Hopeless,” the bitter, defeated voice lashes out with “This isn’t what I wanted / I should have listened to them / go thank yourself for nothing / it’s really all you’re good for.” For further wisdom, look to the songs that deal with life and work, specifically “Everyone Choose Sides” and “Thirteen Grand,” where the Wrens reveal “I lived my life waiting for tomorrow / … / I thought I had it all figured out / but look who got it wrong.”
Fortunately for the listener, the Wrens got very little wrong in the production of this record. Rending their pretty-pop sound into a decidedly darker awareness of the heartache of growing older, the Wrens bookend the album with a short and peculiar live recording of voice and piano literally screaming “Is this what you had planned?” While the Wrens could have never planned that they’d lose their recording contract in the middle of touring or that they’d spend the next seven years working full-time jobs just to get by, the subtle articulate planning of this album is evidence that the time between Seacaucus and The Meadowlands was well-spent.