MJ Lenderman - Boat Songs
(Indie Rock, Alt-Country, Country Rock)
The Wednesday guitarist unveils his latest solo outing, his best yet that takes the developments made during his time in the band and inserts them perfectly into his own rugged country-gaze tunes. Boat Songs is a fast-moving, hard-hitting collection of MJ Lenderman's most soul-baring songwriting to date, taking the intimacy of the everyday and exploring how anger, violence and disruption forever change their look.
The most fun thing, at least for me, when a band's musicians release their own music, is seeing how their time with the band morphs and recontextualizes their songs while still showing their own individual artistic streak. It's why Big Thief's incorporation of some of Adrianne Lenker's solemn folk songs into their own discography is so electrifying, or why the consistently-discussed solo work of each Beatles member gives a deeper look into how the band both grew together and apart from one another when given the chance to branch their own path. For MJ Lenderman, guitarist for the Ashville, North Carolina outfit Wednesday, this is similarly the case, with a few more caveats: namely, the fact that his songs as an individual don't sound too far off from anything Wednesday does in sound or spirit. They both base their sound off a mix of quintessential 90s indie rock, 60s and 70s Americana, and the explorative edge of modern shoegaze and noise pop, lyrical themes that circle around the same feelings of loss, anxiety and destruction; it'd be easy to throw any of his songs onto a Wednesday album without it sticking out too much. With his third solo album Boat Songs, Lenderman continues to refine his musicianship while using his work in Wednesday to make that happen, a perfect middle between the band's sensitive shoegaze and Lenderman's more energetic affairs.
Giving us a deeper look into Lenderman's mind than any part of Wednesday's discography, Boat Songs' eccentric brand of rugged alt-country rock keeps the fuzzy shoegaze edge of his first two albums while taking advantage of all the extra space and glamor of this being his first studio-recorded album. His guitars are loopy, loose and full of character with each strum, his vocal leads drowsy and bouncy like a spring lock unwound and swung in the air, and most importantly, his energy completely set free. While these songs are absolutely soaked in distortion and feedback, they rarely lean on the immersive side of that style, the huge chords he slams down on opener Hangover Game heavy enough to fit on any modern shoegaze album but contextualized here in a driving country rock tune that doesn't stop for even a second; even when he tries something a little less upfront with Dan Mariano that sounds like an indie rock song found in the corner of a boat you can still feel the drum's pulse with a forward motion, Lenderman's refrain of "take it away" 1:40 into the track the perfect way to lead into You Are Every Girl to Me's snappy drum pads and delightfully bitter guitar leads mixed with the whiskey-smooth stretch of a slide guitar. The stripped-down sound of Boat Songs, rarely much more than guitars, drums and voice, gives an inherent sincerity to the sound of the music that then allows Lenderman's writing to hold onto that heart-on-sleeve quality while testing it out in more playful territory: Toontown using the titular Who Framed Roger Rabbit city to explore the feelings that come with losing your composure in front of the one you love, the slight silliness in a couplet like "Did you find my Disney World? / Did it make you dizzy, girl?" renders heartbreaking in Lenderman's hands, and the well-worn country motif of cars to give shape to the loss of agency and the loneliness that comes with fucking something up you knew could have been avoided on Under Control. He has a way of making casual events and images feel like devastation on a planetary scale, expensive meat the catalyst for a ruined night and someone's boyfriend's car keys making him realize how unable he is to stop himself from loving someone already in a relationship. Every story he tells is one you could easily imagine encountering in your own town, and that close connection makes all ten of Boat Songs' songs hit that much harder.
Lenderman's use of dinner-table storytelling allows his writing to extend outwards towards the sky, avoiding becoming insular by evoking indescribable feelings in the inviting warmth of the everyday. Atop You Have Bought Yourself a Boat's chirping clavichords and light guitar work, Lenderman utilizes unusual romantic gestures ("Your laundry looks so pretty / Soft threads hanging and relaxing in the wind") and juxtaposes them with similarly minuscule troubles, bug bites and angry neighbors, to create a place in which his sadness and his joy can coexist with the same amount of love given to each, doing the same later on finale Six Flags where his theme park setting gives weight and color to a one-sided relationship. Even though Boat Songs is centered on themes as general and expected as love, melancholy, romance and the like, Lenderman's writing lends an air of genuine heart to these stories that never feel overwrought or trite once. TLC Cagematch centers itself on pro wrestling that secretly acts as the allegory for watching someone hurt themselves and having no way to stop it, his final verse's soft-spoken "It’s hard to see you fall so flat / From so high up hard down on the [sic] matt" focusing in on this one moment and not letting the lighthearted WWE concept take away from his music's impact. All ten songs are fantastic regardless: Hangover Game hits as hard as the night of partying preceding that hangover and the my bloody valentine levels of drowning guitar bliss on the two-minute long SUV is so urgent and electrifying that it alone could justify listening to Boat Songs in full at least once, but what makes the album work so well is how resolute and whole it is as a full listening experience. In just 34 minutes, Lenderman is able to pull you into his world of hot, muggy North Carolina days where his music is the perfect place for that desire to express to be let out.
While not polished per-se, Boat Songs is MJ Lenderman's most smooth-flowing album to date that preserves its rough, woodsy edge while shedding the unsure edges of his previous projects, resulting in one of the year's best rock albums and a masterclass in how to disarm and subsequently reveal your deepest scars to an audience through music. He is completely and utterly himself here, never taking things too seriously to make things feel too unapproachable - there's a reason songs are named Toontown and Dan Mariano - while always keeping it real enough so that you can feel what he's going for every time. You can both rock out and have a breakdown to Boat Songs (or possibly both at once), and Lenderman's ability to strike that balance so well is the mark of both an incredible musician and an incredible album, taking only the best parts of the 90s indie rock his music is indebted to and seeing how far he can take them with his own charming twist. While not enough time has passed to know whether or not Boat Songs will feel the same come a few years in the future, it's an album that feels like it'll only get better with time from the jump, that each new spin of the album will only make you fall in love with it more as Lenderman's timeless sound steeps even longer with you, and right now it's a truly magnificent album regardless of what the future might have to say about it. Lenderman revels in every minute he allows himself to have here, and if you let yourself do the same, Boat Songs is nothing but gratifying.