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Wild Nothing - Indigo Music Album Reviews

Jack Tatum’s Los Angeles album finds him expanding his ambitions, but neither his songwriting nor his mood-setting measure up to the polish or the scale of his aspirational, accessible indie pop.

“I’d rather live in dreams,” Jack Tatum sighed, one minute into his Wild Nothing debut, and as one of the great philosophers of our time would say, who can relate? As long as a functional definition of “dream pop” exists, its adherents looking to opt out of reality will find Gemini to be a readily accessible escape hatch. But in the time since, Tatum appears to be the only guy who’s taken the message of “Live in Dreams” literally: Indigo opener “Letting Go” is basically a rewrite of 2010’s “Golden Haze,” and the lo-fi limitations of his early solo set-up—synth-string drizzles, low-res drum-machine patter, and fuzzy evocations of transcendent romance—have all been replaced by the real thing. In all senses, Tatum’s fourth LP is his “Los Angeles” album: It presents him as another New York indie-rock transplant flipping LA’s “Welcome to the Jungle” stereotype and relocating after becoming successful, settling down, and starting to say “synergy.” In other words, living the dream.

Indigo takes Wild Nothing to places Tatum likely couldn’t have imagined from his Virginia Tech dorm. Whereas Gemini earned an honorary induction in the lineage of UK indie-pop shut-ins, the wave-running acoustic guitars on “Oscillation” merge with a string section to recall the lavishly produced and largely anonymous Brit-rock acts that emerged to fill the post-Kid A void. “Partners in Motion” sways to a Balearic breeze, saxes blare from the lido deck on “Through Windows,” and “The Closest Thing to Living” recalls not just the sound of Hounds of Love but also a budget big enough to earmark a Fairlight. Tatum co-produced Indigo with Jorge Elbrecht, a guy whose recent resume includes the most polished Ariel Pink, Japanese Breakfast, and Frankie Rose albums to date—the guy knows how to give former bedroom acts a stylish redesign worthy of Dwell: aspirational and accessible.

Yet Tatum himself can’t tie the room together. Just about everything on Indigo serves as a testament to both Tatum’s increasing facility in the studio and his limitations as an actual frontman. This wasn’t an issue on Gemini or Nocturne because Tatum didn’t make it one: His gauzy, glimmering guitars set a mood where you could follow his prompts about Heather or running away with clouds in your eyes or whatever to blot out whatever mundane bullshit was keeping you from your daydreams. In 2012, Tatum even admitted, “I don’t place too much importance on words… I didn’t try and say anything terribly meaningful.” His position in that regard has evolved as well, as Indigo sorta-kinda dabbles in Being Extremely Online—phrases like “heartbreak 2.0,” “swiping through the headlines,” “when I look at you, it’s a screen turned blue,” and “the age of detachment” all roll past like matter-of-fact tweets from your Sorta Online friend, favorited out of obligation. He notices these things, but does he really care about them? Hell, why should we?

It’s a rhetorical question that defines Indigo. “Through Windows” and “Shallow Water” are song titles and concepts that would have fit on any previous Wild Nothing album, but they’re grounded in reality by Tatum’s increasingly specific but inert lyrics—play them against “Through the Grass” and “Summer Holiday,” and there’s the distance between imagining a life together with your crush and having a frank discussion about whose turn it is to take out the trash. Role-playing an obsessive voyeur on “Partners in Motion,” he sounds like he’s channel surfing from his couch. On “Letting Go,” he’s on the verge of truly holding nothing back when he bellows, “I wanna be happier now.” But minutes later, Tatum’s emotional tenor remains fixed in place while singing of a love, “Pulling me close/Pushing me back.” Indigo is rife with these kinds of pop platitudes—“Let’s stay together, baby”; “Now and forever”—that can be taken as universal truth if you can at least believe that the singer believes it himself. Maybe Tatum felt this all very deeply when writing Indigo, but he’s either unwilling or just unable to modulate his delivery enough to distinguish whether he’s singing about the love of his life or simply filling up space.

But Indigo isn’t sunk by Tatum overreaching; much like the similarly lovely and insensate Life of Pause, its failures stem from Tatum being betrayed by his one true strength. When Gemini emerged in the transitional phase between chillwave and beachy indie, Tatum was unrepentantly vibe-first and continues to claim as much, even when that mindset is a narrative liability. But while it’s easy to get the gist of every song on Indigo, Tatum never sets an actual mood.

It’s the kind of perfectly listenable and unchallenging album that inspires critics to go on autopilot and rely on noncommittal terms like “accomplished,” “ambition” and “craft”—the kind of language that hides a sense of frustration in grappling with material that doesn’t return the favor. Nothing makes the fifth or tenth listen more impactful than the first; a close listen is no more revelatory than hearing it in a Crate & Barrel. The only time Tatum sounds fully engaged is when he plays his most unexpected role to date: the already over-it LA native on “Canyon on Fire,” snickering at the “Needless palaces kissing the hillside/Take your pick/Every dream exactly like the last.” That’s the thing most people in Los Angeles realize awfully quick: “Living the dream” is what people say when they’re going through another boring day at the office.

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