Wolves At The Door
"When we were wolves…"
Scotland has been recognized as a hotbed of activity in several musical genres over the past twenty-odd years. Among them are the mood-altering dynamics of Mogwai that border on a version of sonic mysticism, the visceral heart-rending of The Twilight Sad that squeezes hope out of despair (or sometimes vice versa), and the propulsive dance-rock of Franz Ferdinand who built a mythos out of a desire to do nothing more than get girls dancing. However, in terms of the one style that is inextricably linked with the land of the tartan, none of these can compare with the trend that most people would associate with the region: that of the orchestral-/chamber-/twee-pop band. From pioneers Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura to those with less of a cultural footprint like Arab Strap and The Last Battle, if there is a sound that could be said to "define" Scottish musical output in the 2000s it would undoubtedly fall somewhere on the spectrum of folk-inspired, gently harmonic, pastoral pop-rock, and any one person's level of willingness to engage with that sound would probably correspond to their level of admiration for the locality that birthed it (within the scope of modern indie music).
Lost inside the incredibly large and difficult-to-keep-track-of amount of acts that found some level of fame at the aesthetic's height in popularity, there is an album from 2006 that sounds completely of the scene (in the fundamental sense of the word "of") and also completely outside it in ways that are as undeniable as they are tricky to pinpoint. This is an LP that firmly belongs in the critical discussion of Scotland's contributions to indie rock, but also belongs somewhere far away from that discussion, perhaps in a disused church building that is wasting away on an island populated only by hoofed animals and at least two hours by boat from the nearest urban center. The album is Wolves by My Latest Novel, a debut that uses disparate tones and moments of jarring authenticity to weave a pattern that still feels fresh all these years later.
"…and we ran…"
Wolves is perhaps nothing as much as it is a document of a young band learning itself as it goes. As accomplished as its flourishes are (note the spaghetti Western guitar that opens the record on "Ghost In The Gutter" and the way it melds fluidly with the violin), it still retains elements of a brash and unpolished nature. Important to note, it doesn't feel as though the band weren't perfectionists about their craft, but like they were too overstuffed with ideas to stick with any one of them for too long during the creative process. This feeling of intoxication with possibility spills over most obviously during the title track, when an exuberant "Hey!" echoes out of the studio silence during a break in the harmonized vocals.
The tropes that we are accustomed to from this style are all represented. There is the upbeat radio single ("Sister Sneaker Sister Soul"), the album-ending note of joviality ("The Reputation of Ross Francis"), the painfully deliberate build that evolves into a thudding immediacy ("Ghost in the Gutter"). But while accounted for, they are all turned on their heads just a bit, the products of a band who have the utmost respect for their spiritual forefathers but don't feel any need to play by old rules. "Sister Sneaker Sister Soul"'s outro is a madcap rush of wind and madness, strings and drums propelling the listener toward an ending of soft vocals that swoop in to catch them from falling and cradle them like a warm embrace. "The Reputation of Ross Francis" seems at first glance like any other bombastic yarn full of tall tales and self-aggrandizement, until you realize that the narrator is begging to be allowed into Heaven ("A savior I've been called, and it's justified, it's true") and then promising to convince everyone of his worth by fighting "tooth and nail" and using any necessary methods ("by hook, by crook") to achieve his ends - the joke here is on our protagonist: his modus operandi in the mortal world will probably not pass muster in the great hereafter. Add to that, we are never told how this all ends, its ambiguity becomes a cliffhanger for the ages. "Ghost in the Gutter"'s prototypical post-rock leanings give way to a theatrical multi-part vocal that warns against "fall[ing] in love with yourself" before settling into an ennui that feels nothing if not profound, a rebellion against the track's intense beginnings.
"…and we hid…"
But for all this, creativity with song structures and phrasing aren't the real stories here. The true genius of the LP lies in its ability to paint pictures with lyricism and a wide-ranging use of elements that look out of place on paper but don't feel that way in the listening.
"Learning Lego" begins with slow-and-low acoustic guitar paired with hushed lyrics that swell as more band members join in, the drums kick up, a set of bagpipes comes from out of nowhere for a wordless chorus, and then the tide goes back out. In the final moments of the song the vocals develop more urgency as they are underlined by a repetitive drum beat, and then they finally devolve into a chorus of chanting ("Pulling out my hair / … / crushed by plastic Lego men") that brings in a children's choir for added anarchic glee, a stylistic choice that becomes bone-chilling when viewed in a certain light.
Elsewhere, "The Job Mr Kurtz Done" is a largely spoken-word trip down memory lane with a speaker who periodically breaks things up with a refrain of "And then I'm dreaming, or at least I might be". Leaving aside the genuine bizarreness of a narrator who is so unreliable that even he doesn't know if he's dreaming or not, the melancholic beauty of this seemingly nonsensical tune finds its grace in a waltz-timed coda that namedrops everyone's favorite character from Heart of Darkness* and seemingly attempts to give him a sympathetic reimagining: "And you know how such / a life / tries a man like Kurtz". (*Apocalypse Now also works as a reference point, but it’s hard to not see it as a nod to Conrad’s original when one considers how literary this band is on the whole.)
"…and we ran, and we hid…"
"Wrongfully, I Rested" is a journal entry of feelings and memories with some of the most typically "pretty" melodies on the album, including surprisingly on-the-nose lines like "When I dream of you, tears cloud my eyes". The internal shifts in musicality that pervade even during its relatively tame first half notwithstanding, the track seems relatively banal. But midway through, a bell begins to chime and violins create a baroque backbone for the reminiscence to turn into something much darker. The narrator recounts hours spent cowering in fear, "pray[ing] to God he won't come my way". The grotesqueness of this imagery feels like it's soaked in tears and traumatic beyond measure, but whether the tableau is one inspired by an actual recollection or one that is meant as a stand-in for a sense of dread specific to childhood's lack of agency, it hits home in all the most brutal ways. The sum of these parts becomes the self-portrait of a person who is broken, unable to remember any part of his youth without being dragged against his will into the haunted house of sleepless nights he has tried to leave behind.
"…and we hid, and we ran…"
Taken altogether as a statement, Wolves represents a synthesis between musicians who weren't figuring out where their boundaries lay so much as they were making them out of whole cloth by allowing every impulse and declining to restrain themselves from their indulgences. All their amalgamated experiences both magical and miserable created a backdrop against which they could both draw their own map and follow it to its edges. In a part of the world where it seemed for a while like anyone who owned a glockenspiel and could carry a tune was in danger of selling half a million records, My Latest Novel challenged themselves to create something undefinable even while working largely inside the parameters that were already in place for this stylistic approach to indie pop. Their life journeys up to this point led them to collectively lose themselves in their arrangements so that they could come out clean and intact on the other side. The darkness they carried somehow became a beacon of light, and in some ways they transcended the very movement whence they arose.
"…and we hid in lightless rooms, and we banged on our pianos!"