In this continuation of my previous ramblings on La Dispute‘s work in preparation for the release of their new album Panorama on March 22nd, I’ll be looking into their Second Album; Wildlife – which is one hell of an important album. Wildlife was release in 2011 and showed a departure from the key focuses of the previous record. La Dispute’s main goal with this record was to make it feel as organic and natural as it could be – to have it sound as it would when being performed live, using no techniques to polish it.
This album as a contrast to the first, mainly focuses on mental health and the fortitude of the human psyche. Many songs are told from another’s perspective, retelling experiences second-hand. ‘Edward Benz, 27 times’ for example tells the true story of an old man who was stabbed 27 times by his schizophrenic son and survived, then had to get frontman Jordan Dreyer’s characters to help in repairing his son’s house after the attack. The story is told second hand, with Dreyer’s character lamenting on the trauma this man must have experienced in this event: “I sit in my apartment, I’m getting no answers, I’m finding no peace, no release from this anger … and Ed if you hear me, I think of you often, that’s all I can offer, that’s all that I know how to give”. Another song following this trend of Dreyer as a secondary figure in the song is within ‘I See Everything’, where he is a school child reading a diary excerpt given to the class written by a mother as she loses her seven-year-old son to cancer, and how she kept her faith in God after the fact. Again, the song ends with Dreyer reflecting on the strength of this woman in her tale and how he cannot grasp how she was able to survive this ordeal.
‘King Park’ also fits into this theme, but this time it’s unclear how Dreyer is linked to the story. He retells the real-life event of a drive-by shooting in Grand Rapids where the attacker accidentally kills a child instead of his target and follows the aftermath of this child’s death in the neighbourhood and in the shooters psyche. He describes himself as floating between scenes – wanting to discover more about the body and the event (“I wanna know what the colour of the blood was”, “I wanna know what it felt like”). This enthusiasm for knowledge turns to uncertainty and fear as song climaxes, with the shooter being tracked down and locked in his hotel room, questioning “will I still get into heaven if I kill myself?” to the police officers positioned outside the door. The officers are too scared to go into the room, as is Dreyer, and he leaves before the shooter kills himself, sickened by the event and by his own curiosity.
Other songs fit more specifically with Dreyer’s own experiences in his hometown. In ‘St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church Blues’ he theorises about the decaying church he drives past every day, relating it to himself and how he will wither away in his hometown. This fear of being left behind and being forgotten is also seen in ‘Harder Harmonies’ and ‘Edit Your Hometown’, but still within these songs he is a passive actor, simply reflecting on the fact that it’s his own reluctance to move on that has left him stranded; he isolated himself within his hometown and neglected his passions, and he only has himself to blame, pleading for the listener “don’t make the same mistakes as me”.
Between all these impactful tales, there are shorter songs with Dreyer as a narrator, reflecting on his own mental health issues and his deepening decline into a depressive state, questioning how he has the right to affected so deeply when his experiences are nowhere near as horrid as what the storytellers in the other songs have gone through.
This whole concept comes to a head within penultimate track ‘all our bruised bodies and the whole heart shrinks’, where he questions what ones breaking point is, at what stage of trauma and pain does one’s heart shrink? Does it shrink? Does it just disappear? Dreyer attacks his own inability to move on in life and accept the tragedies of his life; throughout the album he’s criticised himself for denying himself the possibility of getting better – the ultimate reason why improving is so difficult is because of his own self-sabotage – something we can see in ourselves. He addresses the listener directly, begging to know how far it is until we give up – referencing the tales of Edward Benz and the mother who lost her son and how their trauma didn’t end them. As the narrator he’s hesitant to know what his ultimate downfall will be, he wants to feel some connection that he isn’t alone in his pains and his fears in life, needing the comfort that comes from those stories, they promise some hope that he could survive this pain, but also brings immense fear that he isn’t capable and will break if faced with another horror. This fear-laden and existential questioning about the strength of one’s own resolve is something that listeners can directly relate to; trauma has the potential to destroy us all, and there’s no way of knowing whether you can overcome until it occurs, and that uncertainty is terrifying.
Once again, the last song on the album doesn’t fit in with the other tracks; ‘You and I in Unison’ has the same existential dread and self-doubt seen in the previous songs, but the tale is no longer his second-hand narration of events in his hometown, it’s a first-hand story of a lost love. Dreyer’s trauma comes from his relationship failing, and his inability to go through the event alone. He still sees her in the sunlight, dreams of her doing simple things, and laments how he can only think of her entwined within his being. He acknowledges that he’s twisting his own memories surrounding the relationship, romanticising it and purposefully removing the negative parts – which is effectively making it even harder for him to forget and recover. While the instrumental tone of this last track relates to the rest of the album, the topic of this domestic relationship falling apart flows into their third studio album.
Whilst listening to the album all the way through is a bit of a task – its hour-long play time can put some off from experiencing it as a whole project – it is worth putting the time aside at some point to listen to it fully as to gain insight of the whole narrative within and to understand what La Dispute were going for, because it is a masterful concept and album.
Wildlife is available now via No Sleep Records.