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Wye Oak’s The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs Is a Vivid Neon Dreamworld

“Suffering?” Jenn Wasner sings at the breathtaking outset of “The Instrument,” the first words we hear on Wye Oak’s sui generis new album. “I remember suffering.” This kind of elusive understatement that makes an outsize impression pervades the music to come. In the moment, as the song pulses with a bright, serene yet gripping euphoria unlike anything else the duo has done, it almost feels possible to believe that suffering is a thing of the past. And there are many such instances of propulsive beauty on The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs, a title that rises to the occasion of its content’s metrical force and symmetry. Singer/guitarist Wasner and drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack have erected a grand tower of song that feels uncommonly complete and self-sufficient, less an album in a sequence than a whole land you visit and don’t want to leave. 

For a time, it seemed like Wye Oak might be destined to be respected, even loved in some quarters, but always out of time or overshadowed. They were a nineties-style indie band (with a penchant for the sneak-up roar of alt-rock) deep in a new millennium, a dream-pop band in the Baltimore of Beach House. On 2014’s Shriek, they turned synth-pop, with Wasner trading guitar for bass, a swerve that was productive but also felt like an abrupt restart. Now they integrate their before-and-after sounds into something beyond either, as if one plus one equaled three. Wasner is back on the ax, but it embellishes the percolating synthesizers at least as often as the opposite, and the richness of the music occasions her best vocal performances to date. The arrangements are airy with distance and light, but their architecture is boldly drawn: the basslines thick and taut, the arpeggios whirring and spangled, the guitars unfurling in a glossy neon cursive.

If Louder is a tower, it’s one that somehow starts at the top and then just keeps rising. The music abuts the commanding art-pop of St. Vincent (especially on the theatrical “It Was Not Natural”) and Björk (Wasner really channels her on “My Signal). It’s burnished and burbling with latent Afropop strains like peak Animal Collective. But none of this accounts for all the places it goes. “The Instrument,” with guitar tones the color of highlighter pens and a synth like a punctured balloon, might make you feel like it’s all downhill from there, but then comes the molten art-funk of the title track, and you think, “No, this is the one.” And then “Lifer” just blows up your heart. Like many songs here, it’s a laconic crescendo. A lullaby turns into a quiet cosmic explosion, as if Amy Millan from Stars had fused with vintage Smashing Pumpkins. The sense of adventure never flags as Wasner and Stack explore the impossible structure they’ve raised. The back half is also stuffed with standouts: from the machine-shop pop of “Symmetry” to the R&B ache of “Say Hello.” We even get a little dream-country number near the end in “You of All People.”

The album is the rare kind of music that seems to irrefutably describe itself, and words just skirt its perimeter. What’s it about? The lyrics sound poignant one by one but add up to something profoundly enigmatic, something you can glimpse slipping off ahead of you but never quite catch. The louder you call, the faster it runs.

Maybe the confluence of certain self-imposed restraints—related to culture and place, falling away, while other, more productive ones take hold—explains its vitality. Wasner, now living in Durham, North Carolina, and Stack, based in Marfa, Texas, traded songs online before convening in the studio for brief, focused sessions, and maybe between these strange new lands they discovered a third one. In any case, whatever reticence or limited ambition hung over previous records has burned off like fog, and they render every panoramic pixel of Louder so vividly it feels like virtual reality.