In 1996, this quartet from New Jersey released Secaucus, their second full-length record and a devastatingly catchy mix of dissonant guitars over tales of self-analytical serial killers. Critics loved it, the band quit their jobs to tour, and their record company, hoping for a cash cow, pressed a million-dollar contract on The Wrens, who stuck to their beliefs and refused to sign. They were subsequently dropped and sent packing home, where they got married, had kids, found endless temp jobs and eventually started work on another record in the house three of them still share. Seven years later, The Meadowlands has been presented to a completely different musical climate, and judging from multiple listens, the time between Wrens sightings was meticulously spent. There are still plenty of the band's trademark hooks; they specialize in repeated guitar/keyboard figures layered over poppy chord progressions, as "Hopeless," "She Sends Kisses," and "Boys You Won't" display. What set the Wrens apart from the indie-rock pack during the time of Secaucus was the sharpness of their lyrics, and while The Meadowlands is full of equally clever wordplay, this time the band reserves their lyrical bite for themselves. This is an album made by four men who passed up a whopping chunk of cash because they didn't believe in the motives behind the money; their self-deprecation now stems from both their sour record industry experience and their own realizations that they've gotten older, the way one starts to find tiny lines etched around the eyes. "I'm nowhere near/what I dreamed I'd be/I can't believe/what life has done to me," they sing over the defeated mood of the album's opener, "The House that Guilt Built." When guitarist Charles Bissett quietly exhales "cause I'm caught/I can't type/I can't temp/I'm way past college/no ways out/no back doors/not anymore," on "This Boy is Exhausted," the sense of resignation is palpable. But hope comes in the song's bridges, each one referring to a different member of the band: "But then once a while/we'll play a show that makes it worthwhile/our sights set low/as Jerry [McDonald, drums] squares off the set here we go." This sort of self-referential lyricism combined with such sincerity more often than not comes across a bit silly, especially from bands whose members haven't found those crows' feet (literal and metaphorical) yet. With The Wrens, however, the context of their lives over the past seven years colors this record with weathered melancholy.
That's not to say there's no fun on The Meadowlands, though. Countering the dense arrangements of most songs is a sense of spontaneity, allowing false song beginnings and meandering bursts of noise to pop up at unexpected moments. The album's closer, "This is Not What You Had Planned," is a two-minute, shoot-from-the-hip piano piece, written and recorded live when bassist Kevin Whelan came home drunk one night. The song's abrupt, uncompromising end generates a momentary chill down the spine, a moment that ties together the previous 12 movements of thirtysomething angst into the indie-rock equivalent of Neil Young's Harvest--a playful, moving commentary on getting older but still not wanting to grow up. --Finn Cohen