La Dispute’s Wildlife – A Retrospective
There is an infintesimal fine line to walk when writing lyrics with the intent of them conveying a particular meaning or depth. The right balance has to be drawn between how overt or subtle the writing is, to come across as powerful while not seeming overly melodramatic or, and meaningless though the term has now become, “emo”. Wildlife, released in 2011, is the third album by Michiganian post-hardcore outfit La Dispute and represents a major shift in the band’s approach to this quandary.
The group’s first full length, Somewhere At the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair was, on the surface, everything one might expect from a post-hardcore release; an entire album singularly focussed upon the breakdown of a relationship. Where Somewhere deviated itself however was that the breakup described was not one experienced in the first person but instead detailed the collapse of the author’s parents’ marriage. A concept album in a relatively loose sense, Somewhere effectively explored the destructive nature of a collapsing relationship from a number of perspectives and only occasionally veered into the realms of obviousness in its message.
Wildlife, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish altogether. A more fully fleshed out concept album, serving as the outlet of an author/journalist as he recounts a number of stories in which he has become involved. This gives the album an odd structure, covering a number of specific relationships and events, over one or more tracks, while in turn following a centralised theme of the narrator’s inability to cope with his own life and how the tales he recounts have weathered upon his psyche. It is in the latter that the narrative of the album really shines with the tracks “A Departure”, “A Letter”, “A Poem”, and “All Our Bruised Bodies and the Whole Heart Shrinks” showing a progressive worsening of the narrator’s mental state.
Where the album shines over its predecessor lies in the very nature of where it attempts to derive lyrical power and weight. Garnering empathy for tales of failed relationships and lost love is easy pickings; almost everyone will have a certain degree of understanding and/or experience they can draw from, but on Wildlife, La Dispute tackle broader topics with less assured relevance but potentially greater weight and meaning. I See Everything is a third-hand account of how a family, and a mother in particular, were forced to deal with the death of their 8 year old son after a long and difficult fight with cancer. The focus in the climax of the song and the callbacks to the story in the album’s final track lies not in the suffering of the child but in how his mother’s life and outset, especially her faith, were forced to weather the storm of suffering his death left in its wake.
“Edward Benz, 27 Times” has the narrator recounting the story of a gentleman he met years before who, after struggling to provide him with a comfortable life, was brutally stabbed by his schizophrenic grandson in a fit of confusion and rage. Once again the focus is drawn away from the obvious, the act and the suffering of the young man, and narrows in on how the repercussions of the event echoed in the man’s perception of his own failings as a guardian and his responsibility for his grandson.
The albums major set piece and climax, if one were to look for such a thing, doubtless comes in the form of “King Park”. The 9 minute epic recounts the accidental shooting of a child during a failed gang-hit and the bleak nature of death in the context of such an incomprehensible event. The song is maybe a little less nuanced than some others on the album, but fantastic pacing and music leads up to a spectacular climax and one of the most emotionally wrought pieces of music I have heard in years.
Musically, Wildlife represents the continuation of a trend of development and maturity in the band’s style over their releases up to this point. The dissonant and heavily distorted riffing in 2006’s EP Vancouver, which developed into the more varied and groove-centric sound of Somewhere, has all but disintegrated on Wildlife. In its place is a greater focus on clarity in tone for all instruments, and heaviness in sound generated through tempo and feel. The overall impression it gives through this, though a big change, suits the heavy focus on lyricism much better and heavier tracks such as “Edit Your Hometown” still retains some of the cathartic aggression of their earlier work.
Wildlife is a remarkable attempt at producing an album with very grand ideas. Though there are no lack of bands, especially in the metal scene, attempting to detach their lyrical content from clichéd tales of romance, the clarity in the vocal style used by the band forces it to the forefront and its success allows the album to shine. Despite the obvious focus on narrative and lyricism the album still delivers as a combined package and shows incredible progression throughout La Dispute’s career to this point, demonstrating how far they’ve come both as a band and as individual musicians. For fans of post hardcore this is an unmissable recent classic of the genre and should be added to your collection immediately if it hasn’t been already.