Wolf Parade’s Thin Mind was one of my favorite albums from 2020

Photo courtesy of Astrid Lyre

In the cognitive dissonance where we made this record, there was no escape.

That’s what Dan Boeckner told Sub Pop about Wolf Parade’s new album, Thin Mind, which, in the tradition of every record released by that band, contains a couple of songs that I simply can’t get out of my head.

If I have a confession to make, it’s that I learned of Wolf Parade through Spencer Krug—or, more specifically, through listening to Spencer Krug’s work as Sunset Rubdown. That band became one of the soundtracks to a year spent abroad.

Just as you can’t recreate the feeling of bursting out of an alley into full view of the Pantheon with the Walkmen’s “In the New Year” coursing through your headphones, there are no words to explain the sublime serenity of being swept along the 6 line’s metro tracks, Paris passing below, to “You Go on Ahead.”

Eventually I was led to Wolf Parade, whose live performances cemented them as one of my favorite bands. I don’t know why it took me so long to start going to concerts consistently; by the time I turned 29, I’d been to maybe three rock shows.

Then I went to an Arcade Fire concert and everything changed. It was like seeing the Pantheon the first time. An experience so overwhelming, a distinct feeling of your neural network being rejiggered in real time, starting afresh. Like what a lengthy drive must do. New perspective.

I started going to as many shows as possible in pursuit of that same feeling; in the city I was living in, even outside of it. The latter felt like a pilgrimage. They felt important, but even at the time I could feel that lightning-in-a-bottle magic slowly drifting away from me, like youth.

But when it worked…oh man. Cut to me seeing Wolf Parade was playing the Urban Lounge in Salt Lake City in late May, 2018, and snapping up a ticket to get there for it. It remains one of the greatest shows I’ve seen, Wolf Parade blowing the roof off a sweaty, seedy little room, the climactic third act in a triple bill that included the Japandroids and only cost about twenty bucks. Security confiscated my water bottle on the way in, so by the time Wolf Parade re-emerged for their encore I was more than three hours in, doused in sweat and downright delirious. The perfect state to appreciate their set closer, “Kissing the Beehive.”

I miss live music.

I’ve seen Wolf Parade live three times since their return from a lengthy hiatus following the release of their third full-length album, Expo 86. After touring finished for their fourth album, Cry Cry Cry, multi-instrumentalist Dante DeCaro left the band, on amicable terms, and Wolf Parade re-entered touring life as a three-piece.

That’s how I saw them that third time at the Fillmore in SF, late last January, where they once again proved why they’re one of the best live acts in music today.

Which makes it all the more interesting, to me, given that their new album garnered such a tepid response from Pitchfork. I was surprised those tastemakers up in the clouds even deigned to acknowledge its presence.

I have many problems with the music review business, not least because slapping a numbered grade onto a work of art inevitably demeans it but mostly because the review cannot possibly to take into account all the little ways that a set of songs can seep into your soul. Over time—that’s the key. If there is an algorithm for how we react to art, it shifts from person to person. Experience, current standing in life; it all gets factored into the appreciation.

Of course criticism has a vital worth; an integral component of a functioning cultural sphere. But man do I struggle to tabulate its worth in relation to music. A score set in stone (come to think of it, however, is anything posted on a cloud set in stone?) by a critic after at most a couple listens of an album can inform a listener’s opinion before said listener has even worked up the nerve to approach it. If it’s a bad review, the listener might shy away from an album that might contain a song that could potentially change his life. There’s so many reasons he might react to it differently than the reviewer did.

Which is what makes it so strange. I think of where I was, mid-August, caught in the two-day heady haze only a great book can inspire—in this case, Rob Doyle’s Threshold—and Julia Take Your Man Home on repeat. I couldn’t get enough of that combo. When I wasn’t reading, I was listening.

It wore me down to a nub, and by the time I’d finished the book, and listened to that Boeckner guitar thrash over When I asked him if he needed to go home, he said the beating heart of a lonely man is nothing but an unheard decrescendo, and have it hit the same way it had on first listen, I realized, Oh. This is incredible. This is world-changing.

This will never be reflected in a Pitchfork review. Music is too deeply personal to adhere to some arbitrary review.

It goes into how you appreciate music. When I consider music critically, I tend to rely upon the tried-and-tested method of how a record is received by an artist’s peers. There are always two Wolf Parade songs on Arcade Fire’s pre-show playlist—“Shine a Light” and “I’ll Believe in Anything.” Win Butler can’t trumpet them enough.

On an appearance on Rick Rubin’s podcast late last year, Butler spoke of how during one of his first shows with Arcade Fire, he was sharing a stage with Wolf Parade in Montreal. Butler dipped into the bathroom during one of Wolf Parade’s songs, and while he was at the sink had to gather himself as he heard a cacophonous wall of sound from the crowd that had blown up around one of Wolf Parade’s songs.

I have a hunch it was I’ll Believe in Anything. Arcade Fire covered it during their close-out show to the Reflektor tour, and in the video you can see Butler using lyric sheets before he gets to the climactic point where he looks up boldly and prepares the audience for the Sound.

Oh look at the trees, and look at my face, and look at a place far way from here.

Après ça, le deluge.

If the best bands possess a kind of je ne sais quoi that sets them apart from the rest, Wolf Parade’s can be found in the sublime sense of weirdness that floats between the notes. And the sense of anticipation that builds in their best songs.

How do you assign a number to that?

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

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