David Cronenberg’s Wife’s second album Hypnagogues opens with Sweden, a song played out entirely in fantasy and observational thoughts. Beginning as a wish to relocate to Sweden for the simple life, it quickly digresses into a series of bizarre half jokes and strange observations. “The elixir of life is omega-3 fish oils,” sings/talks songwriter/vocalist Tom Mayne. He goes in to pubs and orders pints of the stuff, “still feel fucking awful/but now I’m going to live until I’m 124.”
There’s a hint of Talking Heads raconteurism to the song’s various espousals, but without any real substance to back it up it falls flat and feels more like an exercise in appearing intellectual. When the word caligynephobic is thrown in to the song, it’s as though it’s done merely so the listener can appreciate that the songwriter knows what it means. (Google tells us it means ‘a fear of beautiful women’, by the way.)
There is some nice musicianship and structure to the songs themselves, but most of the lyrics in the first half of the record sound like the ravings of someone in a drug-induced stream of consciousness. There are some oddly charming moments, lyrically, like in The Lou Reed Song; a pining, unrequited love song where, among other things, we hear about a love of Lou Reed (“Even when he had a guy on stage with him, doing tai-chi”).
Ultimately though the (at times interesting and almost humorous) lyrics are too verbose for the music behind them and it sounds like bad poetry being spoken in disharmony with the composition. The rather more tuneful In The Limo showcases more than any other track on the album why Mayne might prefer to stick to spoken word. The slow, countrified waltz, complete with violin, tells a sorry tale of a broken relationship in a drunken slur perfectly suited to the tone of the song.
This is followed immediately by another waltz, You Should’ve Closed The Curtains which has shades of Tom Waits and perhaps Leonard Cohen. It builds on the previous track with a fuller production including strings and female harmonies. These two together are the high point of the album which, if laid out in a straight line, would look like a single bleep on a dying patient’s heart rate monitor.
Body To Sleep With is as close as the album comes to sporting a belting rock song. There are heavy beats and loud guitars, but Mayne’s voice, teasing us with two soulful waltzes, begins the slide back to annoying pontificator. Desperate Little Man and Make Me A Channel Of Your Peace strike a better balance between vocals and music, but they are neither as interesting as the opening tracks or as well constructed as their immediate predecessors.
By the time the final track Drawn Again has drawn to a close the vocals and lyrics are back to being slightly interesting, but annoyingly weird and unfunny Tim Vine-esque one liners with examples like “She was reading Stanislavski/but I couldn’t act natural” and “There’s something I want to get off my chest/Only problem is, it’s my chest.”
Coming from the genre of anti-folk, part of David Cronenberg’s Wife’s modus operandi is to be subversive. It’s a cheap way for any artist to claim that if you don’t like it you’re probably just not getting it. The qualifier “anti” means there is no expectation that what you are going to listen to is going to appeal to you or be enjoyable in any way.
There’s of course nothing particularly wrong with this sort of artistic ethic, but while the first few songs on the disc follow this pattern pretty rigidly, they segue into some more soulful and well rounded tracks towards the second half of the album. But rather than appear as an artistic choice, this suggests to the listener that the artist has the ability to capture a good song, they’re just not able to do it very often.