Recently I re-visited one of my favorite albums, Wildlife by La Dispute. Normally I walk on the treadmill for 20-30 minutes a day, but Wildlife clocks in at almost an hour. I had planned to stop at my normal time, but couldn’t bring myself to do it, and went the whole hour. This isn’t one you listen to just part of, it’s an album you commit to.
All lyrics and songs by La Dispute, not me. Obviously.
The interpretation of these songs as presented in this post, however, is mine. At no point should you feel like it’s the correct or only one; that’s the beauty of music.
I first heard of La Dispute in the summer of 2011, when the band released their entire discography for free on the internet. I happened to be browsing a post over at AbsolutePunk, and one of my friends on that site couldn’t recommend the band enough.
I downloaded their discography and gave a few of the releases (one LP and about seven EPs ranging from two to eight tracks) a try. I was at first put off by the vocals; at first listen, Jordan Dreyer’s voice can be intimidating, if not raw.
Even then, there were a few songs I could really get into. I think “The Surgeon and the Scientist” was first among them. One day, with my iPod on shuffle, a little tune called “Such Small Hands” came up. The first thing to catch my hear was the haunting, disembodied guitar intro. Then the vocals come in, and what hooked me were the lyrics.
I thought I heard the door open, oh
No, thought I heard the door open but I only heard it close
I thought I heard a plane crashing
Now I think it was your passion snapping
—La Dispute, “Such Small Hands”
As it turns out, “Such Small Hands” is the first track on their first album, exhaustively titled Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair. That provided the foot in the door for the rest of the record. One listen to the following track, “Said the King to the River”, and I was sold on La Dispute.
La Dispute is a writer’s band. Vocalist Jordan Dreyer had reportedly never participated in music before being asked to join; he wrote short stories and poems instead. Literature is prominent in all of the band’s music. Two of their EPs (Hear, Hear. and Hear, Hear II) consist entirely of the band playing along to Dreyer reading, singing, and screaming famous poems, such as Poe’s “Annabel Lee”.
A fan-made lyric video for the song “Andria”, showcasing a few of the band’s common styles: A blend of spoken-word poetry and fast-paced punk vocals, Jordan Dreyer’s raw, honest-to-God voice and absolute control over his range, the bass coming in to foreshadow the intensity the song is about to escalate to, the lead guitar part forming a sort of “dueling guitars” melody to compliment the lead vocals. While it appears on their first release, this song is referenced many times on the album Wildlife.
For a lot of bands, you can hear the bands that influenced them in their music. With La Dispute, the keen listener will hear all of the writers that influenced the band instead.
It didn’t take long for La Dispute to cement themselves as one of my favorite bands. In October of 2011, they released a new album called Wildlife. I bought it immediately, and took my iPod out to the back deck to listen to it on the porch swing. It seemed fitting: That’s where I go to read books, and Wildlife is audible literature.
Still, I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to hear.
Wildlife is a concept album. Each song has a clear and complete narrative, but also fits into a larger one (think chapters in a book). The album opens with one of four letters the narrator is writing. The song is called “a Departure” and sets the stage for the story about to unfold.
Night fell on me writing this, and I ran out of paper
So I crossed the name out at the top of the page
Not sure why I’m even writing this, but I guess it feels right,
It sort of feels like I have to, like an exorcism.
I guess that makes me sound crazy, but that’s all right.
Lately I feel like I might be, not that I’ve heard any voices or anything
Just like that everyday kind, where you forget things you shouldn’t,
And you think too much about death.
—La Dispute, “a Departure”
The album can be broken down into parts: A letter, three songs, the next letter, three songs, etc. Following “a Departure” is the fast-paced “Harder Harmonies”, which tells the story of an extraordinary piano player whose music is overtaken by the tones of the nearby city.
In all of the songs, it’s difficult to tell how much is literal vs. metaphorical, and how many of the stories are true. I’ve heard that most of them are things experienced by the band members or people they know. Part of me wants to never find out; not knowing contributes to the magnitude Wildlife carries. I can only hope these things didn’t all happen to the same person, but in terms of the story, I’ll say they do.
“Harder Harmonies” escalates into a sense of frustration conveyed not just by the lyrics, but by the music. The song ends on a message anybody could sympathize with: “There’s a melody in everything, I’m trying to find a harmony, but nothing seems to work, nothing seems to fit.” This is a recurring theme: Nothing seems to fit, and I think that’s where the story really picks up.
“St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church Blues” comes next. It tells the story of a church our narrator passes by every day, the once-beloved church now abandoned and falling apart, and the narrator thinks the same thing of some kind of relationship in his life, possibly the loss of his own faith.
Ten years now standing vacant
Ten years on empty, maybe more.
Once held the faith of hundreds,
Soon one more cell phone store.
For years they gathered here
Inside the building, sound and true
To sing their praises to a God that gave them hope
To carry on, to carry through.
—La Dispute, “St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church Blues”
After this comes “Edit Your Hometown”, which sounds like a link you’d click on facebook, and that’s probably the point. The song tells the story of a young man who claimed his city with his friends, spending nights together and having fun, but as the years went on, his friends all moved away and carried on with their lives, leaving the narrator feeling alone with an empty city.
After this is our next letter, this one titled “a Letter”. The narrator looks at all of his anger and frustration and begins to wonder if it comes from within, and that maybe things aren’t working because he isn’t really trying to make them work.
Next up is a song in two parts: “Safer in the Forest/Love Song for Poor Michigan”. Both songs occupy the same track and are loosely related, but you can tell where one ends and one begins. “Safer in the Forest” is a relatively quiet, droning tune carried by guitars that never stop but don’t quite repeat themselves, moving up and down in tune with the vocals, until the song explodes into “Love Song for Poor Michigan”, a song about how a bad economy can break people down. In these you can hear references to previous songs; “Safer in the Forest” mentions the city’s song first suggested in “Harder Harmonies” as well as the desire to leave found in “Edit Your Hometown”, while “Love Song for Poor Michigan” hearkens all the way back to the song “Andria” off the band’s previous album, with the line “I will hold these old streets safely in my head, like her”. If you choose to interpret it as such, Wildlife can be seen as a sort of sequel concept to Somewhere at the Bottom… as this isn’t the only reference you’ll find to the band’s previous work.
“The Most Beautiful Bitter Fruit” carries tones of trying to forget pain through things like drugs and sex, but reflecting on how these releases are only temporary.
After this we get our third letter, titled “a Poem”. The narrator reflects on how the writing isn’t helping: “I had a reason for the writing, but trying to exorcise my demons didn’t work.” The narrator instead writes a poem to summarize his feelings and actions. This is reflected in the song as it slows to a crawl and transitions into a spoken-word poem.
The worry, the wonder, the shortness of days
The replacement for purpose
The things swept away
By the worry, the wonder, my slightness of frame
The replacements for feeling,
The casual lay.
And the worst of the wildlife wears clothes and can pray
And they worry and wonder for three meals a day.
Only death unimpeded, not slowing its pace
Brings that petty old worry and wonder away.
—La Dispute, “a Poem”
After this comes a suite of three songs that I find hard to listen to, but I mean that in the best possible way. The next three songs are, without contest, the most emotionally exhausting suite of music I can think of. By the time I was through the first of them, “King Park”, I had stopped swinging on my porch swing, my shaking hands were pressed against my mouth. If you can think of a movie that brought you to the edge of your seat in anticipation, not in the exaggerated, metaphorical sense, but one of those moments that actually made you drop everything and just sit down and pay attention, this song is the audible equivalent of that. If you listen to nothing else from this record, listen to these three songs, in order, please. Something like this doesn’t come along often in any medium.
I don’t want to spoil the effect for you, so I’ll try not to go into too much detail about these three. Just grab a pair of headphones, sit down in a dark room, and listen. You might want to bring a box of tissues and find some ear bleach for when it’s over. These aren’t songs you just listen to; you’re probably going to want something to help you calm down afterward. I guess this all comes off as pretentious or exaggerated, but that’s not my intention. I’m serious, things are going to get intense.
“King Park” opens with a shooting: “Another shooting on the southeast side, this a drive-by, mid-day…Not far from the park, about a block from where the other shooting was last month. Or was it last week?”
The first two stanzas of the song are told in an omniscient, procedural tone, just the basic facts. There’s been a shooting, not far from where another one was recently. At the end of the second stanza, we hit the human element: “The target: a rival, but they didn’t hit the target this time. They hit a kid we think had nothing to do with it.”
From there, our narrator becomes a spectre, a spirit transcending time and space in an attempt to find a reason for the violence. His journey takes him “High and high up over King Park”, back through time, where he can visit the victims before they died, just “playing games and doing homework”, and visit their families, see their lives.
I want to write it all down, so I can always remember
If you could see it up close, how could you ever forget?
How senseless death, how precious life,
I want to be there when the bullet hit.
—La Dispute, “King Park”
After this, our narrator moves forward in time to find the shooter, and from there an already dark and heavy song becomes almost too much to bear. I won’t even say anything about it. Just go listen for yourself.
After this is a song called “Edward Benz, 27 Times”. This one starts off on a much lighter tone than where “King Park” ends, and for that I’m grateful. We open with an old man, the titular Edward Benz, entering the narrator’s store and asking him to repair a window on a door.
Things take a drastic tone throughout the song as Ed tells our narrator his story. The song bounces back and forth between the narrator in the past, standing on Ed’s porch and listening to his story, and our narrator as he is currently, feeling alone and desperate and in pain. Slowly, our narrator realizes he’s writing a parallel to Ed’s story, so he revisits it in his head for comparison.
The underlying tone seems to be that the narrator finds the two situations incomparable: What the narrator is going through (suggested to be a breakup) is shallow compared to what Ed experienced, but that fact brings our narrator no solace; his pain is still pain.
And I sit in my apartment,
I’m getting no answers.
I’m finding no peace, no release from the anger.
I’ll leave it at arms length,
I’m keeping my distance
From hotels and Jesus and blood on the carpet.
I’m stomaching nothing,
I’m reaching for no one,
I’m leaving this city and I’m headed out to nowhere.
—La Dispute, “Edward Benz, 27 Times”
Our trio rounds out with the song “I See Everything”. In this one, our narrator recalls a day in his junior year of high school, when he walks into the classroom a little late and finds a heavy atmosphere in the room. He takes his seat and finds his teacher handing out photocopies of a journal she kept in the 80’s, shortly after her seven-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer. Following the introduction, the middle of the song is presented directly as these journal entries, and the end finds our narrator alone many years later, reflecting on the teacher and her son, as well as his own life.
There’s a suffering when I look in his eyes
He’s been through so much.
We’ve all been through so much, but
What incredible resolve our little boy shows
Only seven, standing face-to-face with death
He said it’s easy to find people who have suffered worse than him
“Like Jesus suffered worse than anyone,”
He told me last night, when God abandoned him.
—La Dispute, “I See Everything”
Once this suite ends, we’re given our last letter, “a Broken Jar”. Our narrator has grown tired of writing down these stories in attempt to cope, they aren’t helping. In his frustration he turns over a table and a breaks a jar, which he then attempts to repair, but reflects that no matter what he does, the cracks will still be visible, and some things can’t be fully repaired.
After this letter, we’re presented with two songs to serve as falling action. The first is “all our bruised bodies and the whole heart shrinks”. Maybe I look too much into it, but I think the fact that the title is improperly formatted (using all lowercase letters) is a reflection of how the writer has become tired and apathetic, but he hasn’t given up, hence the title being so long.
In this song, our writer comes to a realization. He’s been writing down the suffering of other people to cope with his own, and rather than comparing them, he begins to collect them, to realize that other people have made it through their pain, so it’s possible that he will, too.
Tell me what your worst fears are
I bet they look a lot like mine
Tell me what you think about when you can’t fall asleep at night.
Tell me that you’re struggling, tell me that you’re scared
No, tell me that you’re terrified of life
Tell me that it’s difficult to not think of death sometimes.
Tell me how you lost, tell me how he left, tell me how she left
Tell me how you lost everything that you had,
Tell me it ain’t ever coming back.
Tell me about God, tell me about love,
Tell me that it’s all of the above.
Say you think of everything in fear,
I bet you’re not the only one who does.
—La Dispute, “all our bruised bodies and the whole heart shrinks”
The album’s final track is “You and I in Unison”. In this song, the writer finally tells his own story, adding his own pain to the pages he’s been writing, and leaves them with the feeling that even if we suffer, we all suffer together. Our narrator isn’t alone and never has been—he has a stack of pages that prove it.
There’s a certain feeling you get when you finish reading a good book, and Wildlife is probably the only album that’s ever given me that feeling. It’s painful but hopeful, it’s heavy but beautiful.
La Dispute is releasing their third album in March 2014, called Rooms of the House. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope I love it half as much as I love Wildlife.
La Dispute provides nearly all of their music for listening on their website here: http://www.ladisputemusic.com/music/
If you enjoy the music, please consider supporting the band. Pre-orders of their upcoming album Rooms of the House support various charities. More information can be found on the album’s pre-order pages here: http://hellomerch.com/collections/la-dispute