“Boys, you won’t remember from the minute you walk into the room,” Wrens guitarist Kevin Whelan once sang. But the boys remember. Seems like that’s all they do on The Meadowlands — ruing wasted years, grasping at what-ifs, pouring one out for all those failed romances, then smashing the bottle. The third record from these rambunctious Jersey guitar-slingers rips opens old wounds one by one; they could’ve called it Let It Bleed and Bleed and Bleed.
It was released on September 9, 2003. Used to be the big story was how long the run-up took, spurred on by the messy divorce between the Wrens and Grass Records (which opted to become Wind-Up Records and take over the world via Scott Stapp’s sumptuously oiled barrel chest) and the attendant feeling that they’d missed their shot. But the seven-year gap between 1996’s Pixies-lovin’ garage-pop grab-bag Secaucus and this exquisite regret-fest seems concise compared to the unresolved ellipsis we’ve lived with since. Still no LP4, so The Meadowlands‘ 56 beleaguered, bewildered, belabored minutes amount to the Wrens’ grand finale.
It was also the moment when indie rock became dad rock, when the scrappy fuzz-bombing of the ’90s graduated from youthful angst to middle-aged despair. Before Superchunk’s resurgence as OG majestic shredders, before the National’s submergence into the depths of sorrow, before the Hold Steady romanticized the good old days along the Miss-is-sip-pi Ri-ver, the Wrens made the ultimate emo midlife-crisis record. Sure, Bob Pollard and his good ol’ boys were paunchy and greying when they helped define the scene that nurtured the Wrens, but the brutal honesty here is a far cry from Guided by Voices’ chug-and-slug basement surrealism. No drunken-uncle swagger here — just desperate men in their driest drought.
That’s the kind of confidence deficit that inspires a band to discard, revise, and overdub forevermore. (Per the expertly meta “This Boy Is Exhausted”: “Every win on this record’s hard-won.”) The Meadowlands is the kind of hobbyist LP that musical fathers across America have been tinkering with in the basement forever. Except it actually came out, and it was actually great, a full decade before everyone from Kevin Shields to Justin Timberlake emerged from hibernation with improbable returns to form.
This particular dark night of the soul starts with chirping crickets and a defeated mission statement: “I’m nowhere near what I dreamed I’d be / I can’t believe what life’s done to me.” It ends with a broken man blubbering at a piano. In between comes a parade of arrested man-children lamenting the women who’ve moved on (“It’s just how men mark time”), finding solace only in a rock’n’roll dream deferred. It’s a chronicle of estrangement, from loved ones, from steady job prospects, from the good old days, from hope, from self-control.
Such unseemly tantrums are set to the kind of weathered-yet-resilient soundtrack every sad sack imagines for his own personal melodrama, but few can actually manifest. The Wrens graced their buzzing guitar pop with dignified arrangements even as they howled their lungs out in highly undignified fashion. The rising histrionics of “Happy” crest into graceful, triumphant chiming. “She Sends Kisses” gussies up moribund Chris Carrabba wails with piano and accordion, real classy-like. Dispensing with such subtleties, “Everyone Choose Sides” is a fucking inferno, the sound of a band charging up Mount Doom to cast its career into oblivion. Whether the Wrens will again arise from those flames remains to be seen, but the grown-ass LiveJournal they left behind still blazes after all these years.