There was a time not long ago when you'd hear a great song like "Shadow" from Wild Nothing's sophomore record Nocturne either on your local college radio station or on the Dave Kendall-hosted version of MTV's 120 Minutes, sandwiched in between songs by Kitchens of Distinction and the Church. Wow,” you'd think, “what a great jangly little ‘alternative’ song; since I like the Smiths AND the Sundays I should go to a ‘record store’ and buy a ‘CD’ of their music.
Today, though, you likely heard about Wild Nothing on the internet because of their fantastic debut record Gemini, streamed or downloaded their stuff (legally or illegally) and thought, man, they really capture that C86 sound I've read about in the history books.
The point is in recent years many bands have tried to emulate that mid-to-late 80s ethereal brand of music that would eventually become dream pop. There are many good ones, but none have hit the nail on the head quite as precisely as Wild Nothing. The brainchild of Virginia Tech alumni Jack Tatum (who, it must be said, could not possibly look or sound less like former Oakland Raiders safety Jack "The Assassin" Tatum), Wild Nothing has morphed from a solo project into a proper band, with Tatum continuing all the songwriting duties. Tatum released Gemini while still a senior at Tech, and just like that an indie pop star was born, albeit one who may have felt more comfortable writing and recording in 1990, the year he was born. Gemini was a stunningly beautiful paean to 80's alternapop that caught everyone who heard it off guard - who was this kid with the Robert Smith lyrics, Johnny Marr guitar skills, and Ian McCullough ability to capture mood with synthesizers? Gemini was a surprise throwback that we didn't know we needed.
It was, as the follow-up Nocturne proves, a tough act to follow, mainly because the surprise and novelty have worn off. Nocturne is a fine record and had it not been preceded by Gemini would likely receive greater attention and accolades. However, you can't help but feel that Wild Nothing has been down this road - and emulated these bands - before. Not that there's anything wrong with repetition and familiarity, however; one of the reasons Wild Nothing are so enjoyable is because of the many bands that run through your head while you listen to them. "Midnight Song" calls to mind Head on the Door-era Cure. "Only Heather" is a dead ringer for Tatum's favorite band, the Smiths. "Paradise" mixes in some Pet Shop Boys-sounding synthesizers - too many, really, as the song meanders pointlessly in the middle before finding its way back. And with the exception of Tatum's higher-pitched vocals, the title track sounds like later Psychedelic Furs.
Unfortunately familiarity and nostalgia can only take Nocturne so far; the same synths and arpeggios continue but the effect eventually wears off. While there isn't a bad song on Nocturne, the mediocre ones all seemed to be lined up neatly on side B, so that by the time you reach the album's closer, "Rheya," a slow, echoey wall of synthesizers, you're ready to get back to 2012. There's a reason we made mix tapes in the 80s - because you could only stomach so much Smiths or Echo & the Bunnymen in one sitting; they were better in small doses. That's also true of Nocturne - the album is not as good as the sum of its parts, and is best listened to a chunk at a time, interspersed with livelier tunes.
Nocturne is unlikely to become a massive crossover hit - with the exception of "Shadow," the leadoff single, there are no obvious cuts that will please the top 40 crowd. What the record does have is the unique ability to please both fans of modern indie rock that emulate the pre-dream pop 80s and those that actually lived through them, and these days, that's no small feat.