I’ve written about Wussy in several pieces published in various places and my writings about them all generally start the same way: This Cincinnati band has never been as popular as they deserve to be, but their fanbase makes up for what it lacks in numbers with pure dedication. It’s hard to keep spinning this in different ways, and it’s discouraging to have to write about their small fanbase with every new album. But it is their story, and it’s a fascinating one. Small bands this good generally become big eventually, except that small bands — or big bands, for that matter — are never this good. Their story is one of myth, the story of an insanely consistent band that everyone dropped the ball on. Expect a documentary in a couple decades or so.
They’ve gained slightly more recognition with each album, culminating their fifth studio LP Attica! in 2014. Attica! earned them their first Pitchfork review, a positive review from AllMusic.com and it was ranked in the top 25 of the 2014 Pazz & Jop poll. Even longtime fan Robert Christgau was more positive than usual, giving them their first in-print A+. It seemed that this was the album that would take them from being a small critical favorite to a legitimately popular indie band. All they’d have to do is nail the follow-up.
Indeed, their new release Forever Sounds seems intent on recreating Attica!’s success. The first few tracks follow the same format as the previous album, opening with a Lisa Walker nostalgia trip and then following it with a noisy Chuck Cleaver tune. Even track three’s opening few seconds sound almost identical to the opening of Attica!’s third track, “Bug.”
Unlike Attica!, however, Forever Sounds shows the band trying to capture the attention of new fans and critics, as opposed to appealing to existing ones. Opening with the shoegaze-inspired “Dropping Houses” is certainly a different approach for them, and it sets up an album that’s more based around soundscapes than melody. At the same time, “Dropping Houses” is one of the album’s finer moments. It features moody verses that erupt into a big chorus, with Cleaver’s backing vocals playing off of Walker’s lead beautifully, reminding us why their partnership is so perfect. Lyrically, the song is inspired by The Wizard of Oz and Walker’s childhood imagining of what it would be like to get sucked into a tornado. Explaining the song, she said, “…there’s a moment in your life when you have to stop being afraid of the witch, the storm, whatever it is. And this song celebrates that.”
This sort of Midwest Populism shows up on another one of Walker’s songs, “Donny’s Death Scene.” Based on The Big Lebowski, the song focuses on Steve Buscemi’s character from the film. It’s not surprising that Walker finds sympathy in this character, a silenced, flawed but innocent man who ultimately pays for the sins of those around him. Wussy often relates to the unspoken-for, the people that are usually forgotten, and as a concept, “Donny’s Death Scene” is brilliant. But its execution lacks the subtlety and tunefulness of Attica!’s Dog Day Afternoon-inspired title cut, one of the best movie-inspired songs ever.
Much of Forever Sounds suffers from this problem. The level of quality in Cleaver and Walker’s songwriting has been so high for so long that anything less will inevitably disappoint. Cleaver fares better here overall. It seems that older Wussy fans tend to relate to Cleaver’s alt-country/folk purism while younger fans prefer Walker’s more youthful style, but Forever Sounds may be the first album in which fans young and old will have to admit that Cleaver’s songs are generally the highlights. Especially terrific are “Gone” and “Hello, I’m a Ghost,” both of which use vocal filters to up the intensity. The latter hardly needs any more intensity than what is in the lyrics, though.
“Hello, I’m a Ghost” is among Wussy’s most devastating songs, an ode to a two-year-old breakup that the narrator just can’t shake. “As of now you’ve undressed 700 more times/And I’ve missed every one,” he sings, a line so calculated and contemplated that it can’t help but be heartbreaking. I theorized in my Attica! review that, due to all of the band members being in long-term relationships, the sadness would have to be dialed down on the next album. “Hello, I’m a Ghost” proves me wrong: even when in a state of romantic bliss, Wussy will find a way to write depressing songs. After all, it’s what they do.
Since Forever Sounds is more based around music than melody, and is also the band’s noisiest since 2011’s Strawberry, it gives the rhythm section a chance to shine. “Dropping Houses” has the most notable Mark Messerly bassline since “Pizza King,” and Joe Klug’s drumming gives the intense “Hand of God” much of its edge. It’s easily the best showcase for Messerly and Klug Wussy has ever put out, and as such, it’s a solid representation of Wussy as a rock band, as opposed to just two great songwriters with some backing musicians.
So, while Forever Sounds is probably Wussy’s weakest collection of songs thus far, that only means that it’s on par with a typical good band’s best work. Even the weaker songs have memorable moments, as on “Sidewalk Sale,” where Cleaver begins singing some of the more questionable lyrics from AOR history (“Sucking on a chili dog/Out in the desert/Where the heat is hot”). If you’re a fan, this record may seem underwhelming at first. But keep listening. Wussy releases have a tendency to grow, and this is no exception.