Wye Oak’s third album has been repeatedly described as ‘subtle’. It’s difficult to say whether Civilian is ‘good’ subtle, or just plain boring. Most of the songs lead the listener through airy soundscapes, but they never really arrive anywhere different.
That being said, the Baltimore indie-folk duo find some redemption halfway through the album, where there are a couple of truly brilliant songs. With its stunning, rolling verses punctuated by powerful and gripping breakdowns, ‘Dogs Eyes’ could be one of the best songs of the year if commercial radio picks it up. The title track ‘Civilian’ sees Jenn Wasner’s delicate vocals float above a rolling off-beat until the lightly fuzzy guitar tone reaches a steep wall of noise.
Unfortunately, apart from these two stellar tracks, there are no others which are memorable for any reason. Wasner seems proud that only one of her songs has a chorus, but the album could benefit from some more structure. For subtle folk-rock to be any good, there need to be well composed melodies hiding underneath, which this album lacks. With the exception of ‘Two Small Deaths’, the vocal melodies are rarely outstanding.
There are opportunities for the songs to really explode into something complex and beautiful, but they are rarely taken. ‘Fish’ and ‘Two Small Deaths’ are a little too shy to break out confidently. ‘Hot As Day’ makes an attempt at this, but without the success of ‘Dogs Eyes’.
Subtlety is often a trait some artists aspire to. Bon Iver, Nick Drake and others have it to thank for their success. But there is a fine line where that subtlety drifts into obscurity and sameness, and Civilian falls just on the wrong side of that line.