The Comeback Kids: The Wrens And Their Long-Awaited New Album

When the four members of the New Jersey-based band The Wrens set to work on the follow-up to their 2003 record, the critically-lauded The Meadowlands, Wrens guitarist and vocalist Charles Bissell promised himself things were going to be different.

That record had taken a torturous four years of work to complete. Much of it had involved Bissell laboring alone on hilariously outdated recording equipment in the living room of the house where most of the band lived together. Working in evenings and on weekends he tore songs apart and rebuilt them. He added and subtracted track upon track, part upon part, all within the basic framework created for the songs by the drum tracks the band had recorded at the very beginning of the process. Imagine trying to remodel a home without building or removing any interior walls and you’ll have a sense of the challenge he faced.

Not that the work hadn’t been worth it, exactly. Filled with songs that were startlingly battle-scarred yet resolute, The Meadowlands was met with near-fawning praise upon its release in September of 2003. The accolades came not just from an endless string of websites and now-defunct blogs but from institutions like The New York Times and The New Yorker, as well as lifers like Robert Christgau. “I keep waiting for the moment when I need to put this away for a while,” Christgau wrote in The Village Voice, “and it keeps not coming.” The Wrens had been looking at the album’s release as the likely ending point for the band. It would be, they anticipated, their version of going out on a high note. “What happened,” Bissell says, “is that high note, at least within our relative scheme of things, was much higher than I’d anticipated.”

The band’s shows were suddenly drawing crowds wherever they played. They bought a van and went on tour. They played a sold-out show at New York’s Bowery Ballroom and traveled to Austin, Texas to headline a showcase at South by Southwest. “It is impossible to tear your eyes away,” wrote The Guardian of the band’s performance in London. Throughout it all, drummer Jerry McDonald, bassist and singer Kevin Whelan, and his brother, guitarist Greg Whelan, held onto their day jobs, frequently flying in and out of cities on weekends to perform for packed clubs.

Bissell, meanwhile, left his day job and for the first time in his life aimed to scratch out a living as a full-time musician. He’d been on the cusp of turning forty when The Meadowlands was released and had been making music and playing in bands most of his life. Financially, at least, he had almost nothing to show for it. “I’d focused on making music from before I left for college all the way to the time I turned forty at the sacrifice of everything else,” he says. “No health insurance, no retirement.” You could add to that, though he doesn’t, no serious relationship.

The Wrens’s sudden success had been more than a decade in the making. The band had previously released two records full of itchy post-Nirvana, pre-Interpol, indie rock that never lost sight of the preeminence of of hooks and melody; 1994’s Silver and 1996’s Secaucus. They flirted with signing to the powerhouse label Interscope Records as the 90s wound to a close but a deal ultimately never materialized. For most of their existence, success, or some version of it, seemed forever to be right around the corner.

The unexpected embrace received by The Meadowlands felt like hard-won vindication. “The Meadowlands exemplifies what every fan hopes for when a band announces a reunion or returns from more than a half-decade of silence,” wrote Pitchfork; “that they might have somehow improved exponentially each year they hid from the limelight, resulting in a payoff so cultivated it could be called their defining achievement.”

The album sold around fifty thousand copies, which was roughly fifty thousand more copies than anyone had realistically expected it to. What should have been a quiet denouement for the group had become an unexpected new beginning, loaded with a whole new set of expectations and responsibilities. “We’re in the upswing of the marriage,” Bissell joked somewhat darkly to The New York Times in 2006.  

Part of the magic trick that The Wrens had pulled off with The Meadowlands was to take an album that they’d risked working to death and turn it into something that felt defiantly immediate and painfully intimate. Whether they’d be able  pull off a similar trick a second time was an open question.

Bissell had no illusions they would be able to quickly produce a follow-up. He was exhausted and the other band members were occupied with jobs and families. “I tried to think through how I could set it up so that given everyone’s limitations of time and the things that don’t work well in the band, the means of production in our goofy little universe, could we address most of that so we could hit record when we had good ideas and get going,” he says. Asked when the new record might be released, drummer Jerry MacDonald had once told Stereogum, “Knowing us I think it’s fair to estimate late 2007, or even early or late 2008 … but certainly no later than late 2010!”

Recording, it turned out, wouldn’t even formally get started until 2010. “[The Meadowlands] was so much miserable work the last couple years of recording,” Bissell says, “that in a sense I was like, ‘That will never happen again.’” The idea was to get the songs and arrangements as finished as possible before recording, instead of being in a position where they would have to salvage material after the basic tracking had been done.

“In the end,” Bissell says, “that didn’t really happen.”

Kevin Whelan tracked outlines of his songs with just himself on piano and McDonald on drums. Bissell demoed his songs using programmed drums and had McDonald replace them on the songs that seemed closest to being finished. Bissell and Whelan then took the skeletons of the fourteen songs they’d tracked outlines of and set to finishing them through overdubs, sometimes as a pair and sometimes on their own. It was, as Bissell describes, like “a bet,” a bet not just that they could get finished songs but that the finished songs would be good enough to constitute a record. “If your goal really was to make your best record, and to make the best fourteen songs you could,” he jokes, “may I advise you that your best choice would be to record one hundred songs, Bob Dylan-style, and take the best fourteen of them and finish them. But we didn’t…we took fourteen songs.”

The songs were not assembled by the band together in a practice space, as had been the initial plan. The kinds of decisions that bands typically make together on the fly, like where to shift dynamics, or rearranging a song’s chords, were eventually made by Bissell through an excruciating process that could take months per song. He overdubbed each part and, as he says, “hoped that that week’s work panned out and if it didn’t, you scrapped it all and began again.” As work progressed, he found himself painted into the exact same corner that he’d been in with The Meadowlands. “It would be as if you got a book of blank pages,” he says, “wrote the first page, flipped to the last page and wrote the conclusion of the novel, and then were like, ‘Well, now I’ve got three hundred and eighty-one exact print pages to fill in. What will I write?’”

By 2013, Bissell, still determined to build a life outside of music, had gotten married, bought a home, and had three children with his wife, Palomar singer and guitarist Rachel Warren. The pressure of finishing the album, however, only increased. He describes his mindset at the time as, “being miserable being stuck making this record that clearly is not going to measure up and is not even going to be done, and I didn’t know how to change any of that. I was working on it every day and I was exhausted.”

On a trip to a local bookstore, pushing his youngest son in a stroller, he found himself flipping through translations of The Odyssey and finding unexpected corollaries in it to the story of The Wrens. “I’m standing there and I realized there were a few things I was thinking about and realizing it was ten years ago I made The Meadowlands, and ten years before that we were making the first record,” he says. The book became something of a touchstone as he ground through work on the album. “When it was in its worst part, I was like, A) Fuck this, I don’t want to be in a band, and B) we will never grace a stage again. I was just miserably angry that I was stuck doing this and I had zero desire to ever rehearse songs and get on a stage and play them; not these songs and certainly not old songs. That’s almost what the record is about, that I’ve always been ‘going to make it’ and I’m so goddamn tired of it.”

That same year, hints that the album might be nearing completion began appearing online. Pitchfork and Stereogum both placed it in their “Most Anticipated” album lists. Grantland jokingly called it the Chinese Democracy of indie rock albums, referring to the long-delayed Guns N’ Roses album that was finally released in 2008 after nearly fifteen years of work. “If The Wrens have a franchise,” Steven Hyden wrote in that article, “ it involves eternally delayed albums.”

In 2014, Bissell declared in a Facebook post that the album was finished and that the band had signed with a new label. “I just put all the most current versions of the songs together into a full album file and listened to it top to bottom, backing away from the trees to view the forest for the first time in a long one,” he wrote. “Then I listened to The Meadowlands for the first time in years and, well, I can now definitively say don’t get your hopes up. My best years and work are clearly behind me. Which is sad, because I’ve pretty much burned every available moment of the last four years at least doing this. It’s sorta shocking, really.” The situation, like he says now, was grim.

Exactly how grim it would become, however, was not yet clear. While visiting his in-laws that Thanksgiving, Bissell began feeling severely ill. He and his wife went first to a walk-in clinic and finding that closed, went to a hospital emergency room where Bissell collapsed in the waiting room. He was diagnosed with pneumonia, which led to sepsis. He wound up being placed on a breathing tube and kept in the hospital’s intensive care unit for a week.

“I didn’t know until weeks afterwards, until after I got home, how bad it actually was. My first clue was that on my last night in the hospital they put me in a regular room and the nurse said, ‘I was here the night you were brought in. I didn’t think you were going to make it.’ I was like, ‘Wait…what are you talking about?’” His recovery ended up taking months. “It took me a month or two to be able to walk up the steps without stopping. It was a weird preview of what it’s like to be ninety.”

In 2015, he was hospitalized with pneumonia again, again while visiting his in-laws. He wound up back at the same hospital. This time, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that can cause damage to the kidneys and bones. In the spring of 2016, he began chemotherapy back home in New York. He describes one of the side effects of the therapy as being, “like the most tired you’ve ever been in your life.”

With work on the album entering its sixth year, Bissell grew determined to release it. He began posting invitations on Facebook for fans to come to his home to listen to mixes. Considering those mixes now, he calls them “mind-bendingly awful.” “In a weird way,” he says, “I was winding up the first version of the record. Songs were done, parts were done, mixes were rendered but it just wasn’t good. As a listener, what I think you would have ended up with is, ‘These three songs are really great, and these four songs…I like this one section, but it’s too long, and there’s all this other stuff.’ Which is exactly what The Meadowlands would have been like if it had come out in 2002 instead of 2003.”

Through all of this, he was continuing to deal with flare-ups of focal dystonia, a neurological condition that can cause involuntary muscular contractions which he had first begun experiencing in the late 1980’s. “It’s hard to explain, he says, “but it’s like your fingers are no longer wired directly to your brain, or they start to share, so your third and fourth finger become one giant finger as far as your brain in concerned. So you move one, and in fact they both go together while your other three fingers flail upwards awkwardly.”

For a single guitar track on The Meadowlands, for example, Bissell can remember doing ninety-eight takes. Once he was finished with that track, he then had to double it. “Specifically with dystonia, the harder you try the worse it is,” he says. “So the harder you try to clench those muscles to get your fingers to play something, your hand becomes locked in this rigid lockjaw sort of thing. And with the record, the harder I worked at it, the less it seemed to get done. The harder I worked at it, the songs would just get different or longer or worse, but they wouldn’t get done. They wouldn’t get better.”

Meanwhile, he continued to feel the pressure to surpass the band’s previous albums. “You’re at the playground,” he says, “ten and twenty years older than the other parents. You’re with your kids, you’re trying to rhyme ‘moon and june’ in your head for some stupid-ass rock song that you’re finishing that’s going to be so great that it’s going to change everything, and be the culmination of three decades of work, which will ironically be about your inability to relate to your own children while you’re standing there at the playground. Which is a real hobbling amount of pressure to put on yourself.”

Beginning in 2017, with his three children in school full-time, he was able to spend longer stretches during the day taking songs apart and reworking them. In August of 2017, the band mastered a version of the album. For most bands, mastering is the final step of the recording process. Bissell, however, followed-up the session by going back to work, continuing to strip songs down and edit them. “I get the word ‘tinker’ a lot,” he says, “as in, ‘Stop tinkering with it.’ Understandably, viewed from the outside, someone probably assumes that you’re making adjustments of tiny fractions of a percent overall, all enabled by the computer digital-age that we’re in, recording-wise. But I only recently realized that if I had done more of that early on, I could have been done sooner. I’m always making bold changes, but not well enough.” By Christmas 2018, Bissell was once again preparing final mixes. By June of 2019, he was again calling the album finished.

“I’ve ruined it a thousand times getting here,” he says. “So what you hear at the end is not especially impressive unto itself. It’s like, ‘Why did it take you nine years to do these songs? That bassline is not hard. And that guitar part is not hard.’ And that’s true, but for me, I threw away ninety other bass lines and I re-recorded how many ever other guitars to get just the combination of things that happen in just the right order so that by the time I get to the end of the song it feels right. It was that way on The Meadowlands and it’s more so on this record.”

Though a release date has not been officially announced, Bissell is confident a new Wrens album will finally appear this year. The label the band signed to back in 2014 remains eager to release the album. Though unnamed by the band publicly, it’s stature is significant enough to guarantee that whenever the new Wrens album is released, it will enjoy substantial support.

One finished track that I’ve heard, titled “Three Types of Reading Ambiguity,” feels like it came from the same band that made The Meadowlands while being entirely more cinematic and sweeping than anything on that album. It clocks in at over nine minutes, and pulls from a broader pallet of instrumentation. A snippet from an entirely different song is spliced in to kick off a radical shift in dynamics, while lyrically, like the band’s best songs, its focus on the hyper-personal makes it feel not opaque but all the more emotionally immediate. A second, “Leaves”, wouldn’t have been out-of-place at the session for Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.

In some cases, the individual members of the Wrens have now gone multiple years without seeing each other. With the album nearing release they’ve had to reassess where they’re at as a group, a bizarre replay of where they found themselves back in 2003 before releasing The Meadowlands. “It’s like a weird loop,” Bissell says, “and yet totally different.”

“”I will argue that you can’t find many bands like us,” Kevin Whelan told me. “Our insane life partnership and commitment through this stuff is special and unique and kind of fucked-up. There has never been a day that I or the other guys have not been Wrens.”

Unlike in 2003, the band is facing the prospect of performing live to larger audiences than had initially been there to greet The Meadowlands, as well as releasing music into an environment that has radically changed since their last release. The Meadowlands was garnering rave notices years after its release. High-profile albums can now disappear from view in less than a week.

Looking back on a decade of work, the end of the album’s story, Bissell says, is ultimately a personal one. “It sort of ends with me getting married and for the first time I’m prioritizing something other than practicing my scales fast, or making records or playing in a band. Making it made me miserable and it made me miserable to be around, and coming out of it now makes me all too happy.” words / j langmead

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