For most of their more than two decades together, The Wrens seemed almost stubbornly determined to keep going in spite of the obstacles that might have felled a lesser band. Their masters were held in legal limbo for years after their former label, Grass, was folded into major label Wind-Up (home to Creed, among other bands). Their 2003 masterpiece, The Meadowlands, sounded like a band on the verge of falling apart, with album highlight “Hopeless” delivering a breakup post-mortem via acid-tipped lines like “Go thank yourself for nothing, it’s really all you’re good for,” and “Everyone Choose Sides” offering a good-humored middle finger toward everything and everyone that stood in their way (but mostly Wind-Up Records): “I’ve walked away from more than you imagine, and I sleep just fine.” So even though 18 years had passed since that album’s release, with periodic updates from the band offering reassurances that it wasn’t being shelved, there was reason to expect they’d finally, eventually, see it fully realized.
But everyone has their breaking point. In 2013, The Wrens submitted a finished album to Sub Pop, only for Charles Bissell—one of the group’s two primary songwriters—to change his mind about its readiness for release after the fact. Though some of the delay came about because Bissell had been undergoing cancer treatment during part of that time, over time his behind-the-scenes perfectionism became an increasing point of conflict with bandmate and fellow songwriter Kevin Whelan. After six more years without a finished product, Whelan ultimately decided to take his songs and instead release his own debut album as Aeon Station, featuring contributions from former bandmates Greg Whelan (Kevin’s brother) and Jerry Macdonald. The abrupt end to the nearly two-decade-long wait for the follow-up to The Meadowlands—half of it anyway—didn’t arrive without the airing of a little dirty laundry, Whelan telling his side of the story about how he got here in a New York Times profile and Bissell responding by saying it’s been a “preposterously difficult” 10 years or so.
Aeon Station’s Observatory, fittingly, sounds as much like a follow-up to The Meadowlands as an album featuring three-quarters of The Wrens could be. Much of that album’s rancor and exhaustion remains, but where it felt like a band stubbornly swimming against the tide—united, if embattled—Observatory is something more like an extended exhale. An exasperated exhale, to be sure; in the gentle, piano-driven opener “Hold On,” Whelan laments, “dreams grow old and waste away,” and it’s impossible not to read it in the context of his former band’s anticlimactic past 18 years. It’s hard not to read most of the album in that context, for that matter, whether it’s Whelan singing “There is the life, the one that you want/Here comes the songs, that take us apart” in “Better Love,” or shrugging, “Some things just won’t be undone” on “Air.” These aren’t songs of bitterness, exactly—more than anything Whelan seems to be singing from a place of grief over something he’ll never get back.
It’s not a mournful sounding album, however, at least not most of the time. Observatory begins softly and slowly, and it takes some time to fully build up some steam, but by the introduction of a drum fill breaking through the gentle melancholy of “Leaves,” it fully reveals itself as a rock album after all, and a very good rock album at that. “Fade” carries the anthemic drive of The Wrens at their most outsized and epic, whereas “Everything At Once” carries the stunning pop shimmer of Big Star. “Queens” is a rare moment in which Whelan and company give themselves over to a proper cathartic climax, a thunderous moment of glory in which the frustration gets funneled into something big, loud and fun in spite of everything. But more often than not, it’s the gentler songs, like the finger-picked acoustic highlight “Empty Rooms,” in which Whelan’s songwriting shines most brilliantly.
Had Whelan held out for The Wrens’ eventual fourth album, there likely would be differences in his songs than what we hear here—some subtle, some more overt, but enough to differentiate a full-band effort from more of a solo-driven project. The existence of Observatory, in itself, seems to suggest a good song shouldn’t be sacrificed in pursuit of a perfect one. As it is, Aeon Station’s debut finds Whelan’s songwriting as strong as it’s ever sounded; it’s hard to hear this as “good enough” when held against the idea of some lost album’s “better” that—for most of us, anyway—exists only in theory. That it remains such is sad, but from Whelan’s perspective, necessary. On closer “Alpine Drive,” he sings, “Everything can be replaced, except for your time/So I’m coming back to you and I’ll take back what’s mine.” Climbing your way out of a sunk cost fallacy isn’t always easy, but having something as strong as Observatory to show for it is even rarer still.
Label: Sub Pop
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.