Everyone Chooses Sides: The Wrens’ The Meadowlands at 20

A look back at the classic album that made – and unmade – the Jersey rockers

The Wrens (Image:IHeartRadio)

Whatever this piece is, there’s one thing it’s unmistakably not: On time.

Difficult as it can be to pinpoint an album’s release date prior to the streaming age – particularly if you have a lifelong allergy to the effort actual research requires – The Meadowlands, The Wrens’ third and (possibly) final album, was released, yes, a little longer than 20 years ago. Its birthday has passed, and all I can do is feebly comment “happy belated!” on the “thanks for all the wishes” post.

As usual, what coulda been coulda been: I started work on this in June, thinking, “plenty of time!,” and now have found myself, via the spine-wrecking monkey of poor time allocation, scrambling to cobble something less ambitious together. It’s the second time I’ve daydreamed about penning the definitive screed on this band I admire so ardently. I was shortlisted for a 33 1/3 for the album back in 2012, when sadboy narratives were more in vogue. This sadboy was grinding through a blue collar rock bottom working the earth for his grandparents’ NJ irrigation business. The band’s music, famously suffused with defeat, bore into my soul like a rock-splitter. My bid didn’t survive the stiff competition, and I spent nearly none of the last eleven years finding an outlet for what I had to say. 

The delay is only partly The Wrens’ fault – I got one out of four on Zoom, with the stress of their own day jobs being a very on-brand excuse. While I’d love to compare it to trying to trap intruding goldfinches in a shoebox, my method was more akin to leaving the window open and hoping they’d fly in. Not that you assumed they were the issue. But you’d be forgiven if you did, because delay is on-brand too.

Offered the chance in The Meadowlands’ wake to solidify their reputation as one of indie rock’s greatest bands, The Wrens expended rather more effort cultivating a reputation for not following up their breakthrough album. Many years after its release, rapper Heems affectionately razzed these perpetual promises on his group Das Racist’s Twitter account: “don’t worry, The Wrens are still releasing a new album”. (This friendly fire might’ve even unleashed a curse – Das Racist disbanded more than a decade ago, shortly after their, hm, third album.) The wait might even have outlasted the Wrens themselves.

As a rule, soft-spoken Charles Bissell traded lead vocal and writing duties with the irrepressible Kevin Whelan – a classic John-and-Paul split, with Whelan’s brother Greg and drummer Jerry MacDonald the George and Ringo. They shared a house in Bergen County (with periodic defections), for the bulk of their career, and made their records there; the credits always read, simply, “recorded in our basement, [time period].” Bissell recalled to Rock & Roll Globe the semi-official delegation of responsibilities. For his part, Kevin – blessed with one of rock’s great voices, a meatier variation on Black Francis’ skeletal shriek – would lead the charge for The Wrens’ live shows, raucous noise parties laced with covers. Bissell’s forte, which he attributes to his formal musical education, was fleshing out arrangements for their recordings, which slowly evolved into a production style for which “toiling” was the minimum standard.

The Wrens The Meadowlands, Absolutely Kosher Records 2003

So much of the joy of listening to The Wrens’ music is in sifting through the layers, or rather, letting them fall away before you. Their sound is both rough and meticulous, embracing distortion and the decay endemic to non-professional recording. Guitars are piled up in textural pastures, glorious melodies poking out through thickets of overdrive, or uncoiling out of the crevices. The lyrics, elusive yet naked, are purposefully mangled by the vocalists, or just buried like time capsules, begging to be unearthed but daring you to do the work. There’s so much in the band’s music, dense and raw and stuffed with secrets. (Jazz Monroe’s phrase “atticky magic” is my favorite – homegrown and almost private, yet uncommonly beguiling). But there’s a fragility to its uniqueness, embracing a certain amount of chaos and mess, and whether or not it’s just right has always been up to a single pair of seriously sensitive ears: Bissell’s.

Two years ago, Kevin Whelan tired of the hesitation and indecision which Bissell seemed to treat like requirements. “I’m good with the third take; he’s like, I need three years of takes,” he told the New York Times, when a profiler who’d kept their number scooped Whelan’s decision to strike out on his own. The thing is, it wasn’t really on his own: three out of four Wrens were a part of the new band, called Aeon Station, with the music mostly rescued from the long-in-limbo fourth Wrens album. Bissell, the odd man out, had for years made a sort of bashful, indirect case for his Brian Wilson-ish technical obsessiveness – the process may have been arduous and patience-shattering, but the results were wondrous and singular. But in the Times piece, it’s clear the loss of time left some serious scars on Whelan’s psyche. The public spat hastened a breakdown between the band’s chief members that endures to this moment.

It feels like a defeat. But that’s been their pet subject from the start. Their origin story, circa 1989, is of a triumphant first gig that didn’t even happen. Offered an opening slot for reuniting new-wavers The Fixx, all the band had to do was sell 1000 of the show’s tickets. “The Wrens fail[ed] to sell even 6 tickets,” reads their website’s official bio. Whether the shortfall is an exaggeration, it sets a tone their music almost always reflects. That is, an internalized sense of melancholic doom that amplifies any quotidian misfortune – like a failure to leave your parents’ house in what feels like a timely fashion, or a marriage on the rocks over unavoided temptation, or a punishing day job – into tragedies both cosmically outsized and wildly poignant. Whelan may have bagged a Times feature for releasing his album (or, perhaps, for not releasing his band’s album), but he still tells his story like he never made it.

This isn’t to say the band didn’t have reason to feel worn down by the time of The Meadowlands. Ten years earlier, they put out their first release, an EP called Low (the title was one of innumerable band names discarded over five years of woodshedding). Its lyrics poeticize a blurry unease, and the vocals are shot through with anguish. The music is a tangle of strangled guitars, a monochrome rush, the sonic equivalent of speeding down the turnpike in a hard gray rain. It’s fucking great, and one of two Wrens records Bissell speaks about with unambiguous fondness.

While the debut album, Silver, isn’t the unwieldy mess it’s sometimes made out to be (even by the band itself), the first reaction they got from their label, Grass Records, was the sort of sting that shapes you: “Is it supposed to sound like this?” Its production is thin and metallic, and it takes more liberties with intentional imperfections than later on – tracks dropping out, random spoken-word intrusions. But it’s filled to the gills with wonderful songs, like the ecstatic “From His Lips,” in which Kevin hurls himself off a building, or the agonized “What’s a Girl,” where Charles puzzles through a crush over the slow course of a delirious crescendo. Their label’s reaction speaks to an adage I first read in an interview with Bissell about home recording: “sounds great in your bedroom, and like shit everywhere else.” Still, they were feeling support by the time of the album’s 1994 release: from a growing fanbase, a smattering of enthusiastic critics, and that rare thing, a supportive label executive named Camille Sciara.



The thing about that rare thing is, it’s usually doing its thing in opposition to the machine for which it’s a cog. Grass Records was spectacularly unprepared for how to market Secaucus, the 19-song follow-up Bissell claims without flinching is their best album. The sound is beefed up and spit-shined, without sacrificing that handcrafted quality that makes the group so addictive. Exuberant shoulda-been hits like “Built in Girls”, “Surprise Honeycomb”, and “Rest Your Head” careen in and out of broken, patchwork plaints like “Won’t Get too Far” and “Jane Fakes a Hug”. When they feel bitchy or browbeaten, they also sound ready to storm alt-rock’s castles – as on the jagged, almost Beefhearty “It’s Not Getting Any Good”, or the Pavement-baiting “Indie 500”, with Kevin’s burnt-rubber piano part. And “I’ve Made Enough Friends”, a play-by-play of the start of an affair, nails very specific feelings in gorgeous detail. Secaucus holds its own against any of the alternative era’s screaming-guitar masterworks.

But their oil-and-water relationship with the business end was beginning to grind The Wrens down. Though they had, in their early days, written prank letters to the VPs of any major label whose address they could find and signed them “Finest Anus”, they were ready to play ball with any businesspersons ready to respect their art. Grass did not. Distributed by Interscope, management had changed since the band were signed, and the strong-arming overtures over a “big buck record contract,” as the bio describes it, were not so welcome: “they wanted to make us somebody we weren’t.” The band, in the middle of a mismanaged tour, held out, and the label lost patience. Much has been made of where their money ended up: in Creed, who for a hot and horrible minute made a lot of people rich. Demoralized, The Wrens cut a dynamite EP, Abbott 1135, which their old label friend put out on her new indie imprint. It did less than nothing, and by the end of the ‘90s, the threat of overnight success had dissipated.

Greg told Pitchfork about the epiphany this spurred: “We said, ‘Fuck it! We’re not going to be the next cool band. We’re a bunch of old guys from Jersey.’ And once we got into that mind frame, everything seemed to work out great.” A certain amount of strategic surrender – these boys were exhausted – informed the four years the group took to put The Meadowlands together. Though the micro-label which eventually put it out, Absolutely Kosher, was involved years before its official release, it’s clear the band was ready to savor the lack of pressure from above. Painstakingly constructed, brick by brick (Bissell compares his preferred recording style to the artificial worlds of the later Beatles, rather than the “photographic representation” of four guys in a room), the album would come into the world on its own timetable. Increasingly beleaguering intrusions – dissatisfied partners, epic work commutes, mounting existential fatigue – notwithstanding, the work it required rendered all other concerns secondary.

Still, those concerns found their way into the work, and it’s their presence that makes it so vital. “Every win on this record’s hard won”, Bissell intones on the alluringly self-referential “This Boy is Exhausted”. “I hate choruses,” he told me, “I always feel pressure. So I never use the same words.” To the naked ear, the words to “This Boy”’s chorus are a beatific beam of “ba ba, ba ba”s, but if you strain a little harder you’ll hear faint sentences. One of the great thrills of the album is how many easter eggs are glittering through its gray-green wetland haze. For instance, the preview of the chorus melody Charles sings on Kevin’s “Happy” – the actual chorus takes five minutes to properly surface. Or how the lyric booklet styles an ex-lover’s signature as “Beth XXXXOOOO,” but you have to be following along with the music to hear the amazing unfurl of the sung line: “Beth ohhhs and ex-EHHHS…” But those are the tricks every last Wrens record is brimming with. The Meadowlands’ vulnerability sets it apart.

Sometimes it’s joyous, like Bissell’s nod to how the tension and duress of making a record on a full work schedule is relieved on stage: “But then Kev jumps in/and hits the floor as the stick hits the rim…” More often, though, it’s the tired-eyed echoes of real life’s hard knocks that make these songs so compelling. It’s there in the pained whisper in “Per Second Second” – “shot rock splitter to gaaaahhhd…” It’s there in the 2AM-drunken-stumble-in of the closer, where Kevin bangs out a quick, apparently improvised piano ditty (“this is not what you had planned…”), hanging on a cathartic, piercing cry on one random note. It’s there in the opener, which sums up a career laden with thematic malaise. After a chorus of real crickets, a quiet, luminous bloom of guitar strum carries the brittle, double-tracked voice of the drummer:


It’s been so long since you’ve heard from me
Got a wife and kid that I never see
And I’m nowhere near where I dreamed I’d be
I can’t believe what life’s done to me


The narrator’s in tatters, but there’s not a scrap of self-pity, just a kind of stunned humility. “The House That Guilt Built”, it’s called, and while the guilt is unspecified, guilt is fleshed out plenty on a set of Bissell songs which appear to chronicle a real-life extramarital affair with a younger woman. (He’s confirmed their veracity, but also told me that Wrens songs are more often mistaken for autobiographical than not). “Ex-Girl Collection” is one of rock’s greatest lyrics, a torrent of aching detail; you can appreciate its careful construction on Will Sheff’s spare cover, since he never obscures lyrics. The story is elaborated, and ambiguously concluded, on “13 Months in 6 Minutes”, which near the end of its titular timeframe suddenly crumbles away, revealing an entirely separate and even lovelier song – the “Cry Baby Cry” trick where discarded ideas surface briefly, like interruptions in a dream.

Kevin’s tracks are less confessional, but they provide most of the momentum. “Happy” is a master class in dynamic development, starting out deathly quiet, punctured with rippling, raindrop-like guitar figures, until it builds and blossoms and bursts into a higher intensity, the vocals yearning harder and harder with each leap upward. (This and “Hopeless” are what emo would sound like if its practitioners actually earned their overwrought emotions.) The moody, piano-driven “Boys You Won’t” is the most assured ballad to date from a man whose forte is the screaming rocker. Stately and shimmering, its “and I stood up” hook tills all the triumph it needs to from fields of disappointment. And brother Greg finds his finest moment with “Thirteen Grand”, an alluringly dreamy ballad which serves as an oasis in the midst of all the devastation. “Is this real at all?” turns grief into wonder in five simple, sweetly crooned words.

The Meadowlands advance press CD (Image: Reddit)

I don’t have a clean ending for you – this is not what I had planned. Wrens fandom has had its rewards in the past two decades: tantalizing glimpses of unfinished tracks like “Crescent”; insightful, probing articles about what the band may or may not be up to; Bissell’s always rewardingly written social media posts; and the Aeon Station album, which is clear-eyed and rousing. And though the closest we got to a fourth Wrens album being honest-to-God released was a whole ten years ago, when Sub Pop were apparently handed a master that was apparently neurotically withdrawn, Bissell posted a hopeful photo on the band’s Instagram this August 31st: “return[ed] from a wonderful family vacation to find test pressings, my first in 40+ years of bands&music, in the mailbox…” He says early October will bring bigger news.

Though it seems like we’ve been here before, nothing in Bissell’s affect suggests struggle or self-delusion. He’s a buoyant joy on Zoom, ready to laugh about missed chances or overcaked paintings, or get into deep detail about the ADAT machines the band recorded on, or the use of fourths in their music. “My complete, freezing, incapacitating fear that what sounded one way [will sound different somewhere else] – I’ve only just completely gotten over it,” he assures.

But anyone who’s spent time with the Wrens knows that’s the beauty of it – on any given day, you’ll hear a thing you never heard before. A line or melodic passage or coalescence of chance elements will suddenly knock you sideways, and nothing will realign you for the rest of your life. You don’t even have to be all that unhappy. But it will lift you up.


Ryan Maffei

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Ryan Maffei

Ryan Maffei is a freelance writer, musician and actor in the Dallas area. He was a member of the lost punk group Hot Lil Hands and the lost pop group the Pozniaks. He loves the Go-Betweens and was lucky enough to write liner notes for their box sets.

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