The guy I remember from an album that boasted of being a 30-something “best 17-year old ever” making about $13,000 a year greets me showered and blue-blazered, sporting a white oxford and an equally bright smile. Kevin Whelan calls his Zoom profile picture his “LinkedIn look,” and it betrays an unexpected quirk of a Google search I conducted just prior to my conversation with the Aeon Station frontman: “Kevin Whelan Johnson and Johnson” pops up ahead of “Kevin Whelan Wrens.” Whelan’s official job title is Global Head of R&D Strategic Initiatives and Operations, and he manages about 400 employees. Since 2003, it’s been far more likely that Whelan could give someone a job than a new Wrens song. More disturbing is that the third entry is “Kevin Whelan Obituary.” “Work, rock and then death – that’s a good sequence,” Whelan jokes. But it segues into why he had to kill a Wrens album 18 years in the making so that Aeon Station could live: “I won’t be doing another record like this because I don’t have enough time.”
Aeon Station’s debut album Observatory is almost exactly what you’d expect from an album that involves three-fourths of The Wrens and was intended as a release valve from the painstaking and altogether painful process of making Wrens music. “The weight I was lifting has lifted from me,” Whelan sings during “Air,” quintessentially scuffed, anthemic indie rock that knows not to soar too high, lest its triumphs seem unattainable. But “Better Love” follows immediately after, and its closing line – “here comes a better love/the one you dreamed you’d always have” – is the first time Whelan has written about victory, as opposed to simply defying defeat.
Compared to his more esoteric approach within The Wrens, Whelan describes his writing on Observatory as “fastball,” plainspoken and direct, motivational without being cloying, the sort of pep talks people usually wish they’d get from a higher-up at the office. “When all you know or believe to be true goes wrong/hold on,” Whelan sighs on the introduction, beginning a circle that closes with the final words of Observatory: “Hold strong in this fight because we’re almost through/I’m on my way back home to you.”
Under just about any other circumstances, the mere existence of Observatory would be cause for celebration. At the risk of assuming diehard Wrens fans fall within a certain age demographic, there’s an element of wish fulfilment: an immensely talented musician put his rock fantasies aside to focus on career, marriage and parenting only to realize he can’t be fully present in any of those things without tending to his muse. Whelan’s wife contributed backup vocals to Observatory and, more importantly, an invaluable role as a life coach. “You’re almost not a good person without music in your life,” Whelan recalls being told. “Time is so precious, why are you messing around?”
Yet, even the most optimistic take on will register Observatory as a bittersweet success for Whelan. It’s nearly impossible to hear these songs unblemished by the very public battle taking place between Whelan and his estranged co-songwriter Charles Bissell over the excruciatingly protracted and, now, non-existent follow-up to 2003’s cult classic The Meadowlands. It’s been hard to square the past 18 years of tinkering with the actual music that The Wrens make. This sort of mysterious and meticulous process is expected from reclusive, genre-defining geniuses like Kevin Shields or Richard D. James. Or, exorbitantly wealthy perfectionists such as Daft Punk or Frank Ocean. Similarly, with the deflating rumors of the band squabbling over finances, just how much money is there really in the Wrens business? The band currently has about 22,500 monthly listeners on Spotify and they haven’t toured in a decade. “We’ve never had nothing but debt,” Whelan points out.
Even at a time when millions spent the holiday season listening to 30 and watching Get Back, Observatory still feels uniquely burdened by its baggage. Imagine if every Adele interview required equal space for Simon Konecki’s side of the story. Or, if after hundreds of takes on “Get Back” and “Let It Be,” Paul, George and Ringo decided to record them without John Lennon under a different name. “We tried to emulate [The Beatles] on many levels,” Whelan claims, from the democratic songwriting process to The Beatles daily recording book they kept in the studio for inspiration, to their insistence that their drummer sing one song per record.
“What is sadly being missed in many recent articles is that like The Beatles, The Wrens are FOUR people,” Whelan states in a follow-up email. “It is not just Charles and me. It’s also [drummer] Jerry MacDonald and [brother/guitarist] Greg Whelan,” both of whom play on Observatory and will be part of the touring band.
Whelan says that half of Observatory was once earmarked for that “next Wrens album,” including “Alpine Drive,” which premieres today. Whelan envisioned it soundtracking “joyful reunions,” and through its plucked piano and swaying waltz rhythm, it ends Observatory with a seasonally apropos, carol-like uplift. But if the rollout for Observation has been any indication, the comments sections will fixate on one line – “one thousand night shifts will end with the sun/still breaking rocks into songs we never get done.” It can sometimes feel like a Speakerboxxx without The Love Below; resident tinkerer and confounding genius Bissell claims that his solo project is imminent.
I feel some degree of shame in admitting that I wondered if The Wrens could make a record worthy of The Meadowlands without a similarly compelling backstory of interpersonal and industry strife. Now, the conflict of Observatory is as baked into its narrative as The Wrens’ many indignities were into The Meadowlands. Their previous two albums – 1994’s Silver and Secaucus, which arrived two years later – are strong and at times superlative collections of tuneful, scrappy mid-’90s indie rock. But truth be told, they never quite lived up to the legend of them being pop savants showered with millions during the last days of the alt-rock gold rush. Still, it was once easy to romanticize the Wrens as indie idealists with a self-destructive streak, doomed to failure by a shortsighted and greedy music industry. The beats are familiar by now: alienating influential managers, A&Rs and label execs, turning down a seven-figure contract from a guy who turned around and created Wind-Up Records, which sold about 50 million Creed and Evanescence records.
All of those years were kind of a loss leader for The Meadowlands. Given its extremely grown-ass and unglamorous concerns, it’s a testament to the strength of The Meadowlands’ uniquely compelling songwriting that it still reached an audience of collegiate indie kids at a time when dance-punk and freak-folk and crunk loomed large. But according to Whelan’s retelling, a lot of their time since 2003 was spent doing nothing. Or at least getting on with the rest of their lives. “Everyone was getting married in 2009, no one was totally focused, but in 2010 we got the machine up and running,” he recalls. By 2014, The Wrens band quietly signed a deal with Sub Pop, which is now releasing Observatory. After decades of misunderstandings and monetary limitations, Whelan could not be more grateful for his relationship with the label. They gave us an advance when no one was getting money from any label, and we never had any money,” he says.
Bissell was diagnosed with plasma cell cancer the next year, from which he has recovered. After that, Bissell and Whelan’s stories diverge on the degree to which LP4 was legitimately finished. Whelan’s belief in its eventual release made it easier for him to move to Singapore for 18 months on a work assignment, arriving back in the States right before the COVID-19 pandemic. This time abroad allowed a near-total isolation from music listening and music making. “In Singapore, there’s almost no music,” Whelan notes. “They’ll bring in concerts, but anything you hear on the radio is all cover songs.” He says he didn’t pick up a guitar for the entire time, assuming it’d be unwise to start on anything new until the songs he’d been sitting on for a decade were finally put to rest.
The timeline is complicated by Whelan’s self-referential lyrics, which could either be interpreted as remnants of a Wrens album playing on their own mythology or Observatory being a veritable concept record about the rift between the primary songwriters. “Everything At Once” makes lyrical allusions to The Meadowlands bookends “This is Not What You Had Planned” and “The House That Guilt Built”; the latter is evoked in the unmistakable opening chord of “Move.” I tried to deduce which are the new songs and which ones were intended for The Wrens simply by assuming the album was sequenced chronologically; turns out, it’s damn near the opposite. “I redid the first intro song [“Hold On”] and “Leaves” has been around since 2009,” Whelan points out, and the ensuing tracks, “Fade,” “Everything at Once” and “Move,” were written last fall. It was only in March 2021 that Whelan committed to using them for Aeon Station. Side B begins with lead single “Queens,” which evolved from “Sophie,” a continually fussed-over Wrens song. Most critics keyed on the lyrics that read like metacommentary – “you never win/you lied to me/your life goes on,” “who knows why it ends like this” and its rousing coda – “you said it was all in!” What follows is a run of long-gestating songs that seemed to anticipate that they’d never see the light of day – “here come the songs that break us apart, “it’s no use/you’re not coming back/it’s all air/you can’t undo those tracks.”
As Whelan recoils from the airing out of Wrens family business, it’s only fair to ask him whether it was inevitable given the obligations of doing press for Aeon Station and the persistent temptation to identify the “you” addressed throughout Observatory.
“I didn’t want to [use my own name] like a singer-songwriter, because I’m not playing solo on a mountaintop,” Whelan explains and he chose Aeon Station to reflect the seemingly endless passage of time it took for him to arrive here. Likewise, the album cover appears to be a half-finished office building. And yet, the most impressive accomplishment of Observatory is that its ultimate message is one of resilience, vindication and forgiveness rather than bitterness or impotent longing – the kind of thing one could hope for a man who spent nearly two decades asked to live up to an album that aired out his failures and shortcomings in excruciating detail.
“I was making it in isolation, for me only, and I thought ‘I’m saying a lot,’” Whelan firmly states. “I knew I was saying something, whether anyone cared.”