Moments of hook-dappled enticing pop and instances of skirt-twirling uplift dart across the ethereal surfaces of Headlights’ latest album, Wildlife (Polyvinyl), but the eerie “You and Eye” might provide the key to the Champaign, Ill., combo’s headspace.
It’s a dreamy, diffuse cloud of droning, pulsing organ; pieced-out, mandolin-like guitar; and wide-eyed yet mesmerized girlish vocals. The distant rumble of bass sounds in the background. “You came running with a note in your hand / You said you made a promise that I’d understand / But it wasn’t the same at all / No, it wasn’t the same at all,” intones Erin Fein, as if she’s letting the listener in on a closely held secret. She floats off on a reverie of breathy vocables and ever-so-gently-battered snare, and the rest of the band rising to the foreground of the mix like a fine mist.
How to get a handle on such sweet melancholy, the likes of which one might snatch more regularly in the late ‘90s indie-rock scene? The circumstances of the making of this, Headlights’ third full-length, shed a little light on the band’s mood. Loss set the tone. Guitarist and songwriter Tristan Wraight and keyboardist songwriter Erin Fein dealt with the death of loved ones during the record’s making, while guitarist John Owen joined the group then departed amicably. An initial tempestuous recording process went awry and led the ensemble to toss nearly everything it worked on.
The group was apparently brushing up against the constraints of the past, the limits of expression and the constraints of verse-chorus song structure. The resulting Wildlife never entirely breaks free from those strictures, but you can feel Headlights balancing its love of elegant pop songcraft with a few untethered instances of ambient drift (“Dead Ends”) and more aggressive bursts of noise (“I Don’t Mind at All”), vowing in “We’re All Animals,” “Let’s go back and try.” Next time might be the charm as Wildlife reaches for the wild sublime, working in the same borderlands between tunefulness and chaos as Yo La Tengo and carving out a place in the shifting sands.