Wolf Parade’s debut record, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is a scrappy, tuneful, passionate affair: despite the band’s obvious Bowie-isms and more-or-less standard indie rock instrumentation and aims, they caught my attention and held it through their strong songcraft and obvious commitment to their material. This year’s follow-up has an embarrassing, wince-inducing title, At Mount Zoomer, and is at every moment an achingly self-conscious attempt to take the band’s music up a notch: this time they’ve clearly set out with old-fashioned rock album greatness in mind. This isn’t necessarily a bad strategy these days, when so many indie rock buzz bands end up fading or flaming out more or less as soon as the blog chatter is over—it might well take a bold move and baldfaced ambition for a band like Wolf Parade to continue to command anyone’s attention.
At Mount Zoomer‘s high ambitions bring decidedly mixed results. Epic closer “Kissing the Beehive” rides its pretension and bombast to nowhere, and gets there very very slowly. “Call It a Ritual” begins with a gloomy, ominous bounce that fails to embody any real emotion; calculated bursts of noise fail to prevent the song from feeling limp and rote. “California Dreamer” employs goofy, mock-spooky organ and basslines that undercut the ambition in song’s spaciousness and sprawl, before the song bizarrely degenerates into a brief Doors-like freak-out. This is no better of an idea here than it was when the Doors did it—though at least Wolf Parade’s noodling doesn’t last for minutes on end.
On the other hand, album opener “Soldier’s Grin” achieves its appealing grandeur by alternating passages of tight and tense rhythmic guitar riffing with with huge, soaring verses. If the whole record had maintained both the big sound and emotive energy that are in full effect here at its start, At Mount Zoomer might have been a great deal more successful. “Language City” brings the pop song power to the fore—the song opens with a vibe that’s no less ominous than that of “Call It a Ritual,” but then smartly locks it in with a memorable vocal hook. Synthesizers snake around the song’s closing bridge and coda, building just the right atmosphere and tension to take the repeated vocals home.
But the song that really keeps me coming back to At Mount Zoomer, and which reaffirms my belief that Wolf Parade remains a band with a bright future, is “The Grey Estates,” the melody of which has been haunting me for weeks. The song tunefully expresses a simple-but-deep longing to abandon the status quo and hit the road for somewhere new—but complicates this idea with sad knowledge of the fact that the new place is likely to leave you feeling just as unsatisfied and restless as the old one. “So let the needle on the compass swing,” the speaker implores, “Let the iron in your heart’s blood ring.” Restlessness and longing are facts of human nature, built into our very hearts—but maybe there’s no time we’re happier than when we’re on the road with the wind in our hair and with our old homes receding behind us into the distance.