Wonder’s “Lungs” is haunting
By the end of the EP, even love is walking dead.
“Zombie,” the darkest track on Wonder Whalen’s second EP, plaintively laments the remnants of a relationship stitched together by little more than self-imposed delusion. Specters make frequent appearances throughout the Seattle songwriter’s five new tracks, from a frozen winter heart incapable of thawing in the springtime sun (yet somehow still faintly beating), to ghosts taking up permanent residence in a darkened closet.
Perhaps it’s fitting then that Lungs rises on the bones of an earlier EP — The Minotaur — that Wonder has worked so hard to bury.
“I’ve spent six months trying to make The Minotaur EP disappear,” Wonder confesses. Though she spent significant energy on that first project, and followed all the so-called right steps (“a Kickstarter, raised $5,000, booked a studio, laid down the tracks, had someone add some production to it — all the bells and whistles”), ultimately she was disappointed.
“I didn’t like how the record sounded. It wasn’t anyone’s fault but mine; I just wasn’t comfortable in myself enough at the time, and I certainly didn’t give myself enough time to let the recording process happen organically.”
For Lungs, Wonder did something few artists who are still attempting to make a name for themselves do: She scaled back.
“I set out to make a listening experience that was honest, authentic and bare,” she adds. “I wanted it to be a demo that still sounded good, and I wanted to have it be the new baseline for where I would go in the future as a recording artist.”
Wonder grew up in a family of musicians.
Her father is a rock musician with several recorded albums under his belt (one of which features a nine year-old Wonder). Her grandpa is a drummer, her aunt a renowned karaoke singer, and her grandmother “sings hymns like you wouldn’t believe.”
“My best childhood memories are of the road trips I would take with my dad or my grandma going back and forth between Washington and Oregon,” she recalls. Though born in Salem, Oregon, her parents split up when she was only two, and she spent her childhood moving around the west coast, from the rainy northernmost reaches of the American Pacific Northwest to the sunny beaches of Orange County, California.
Her grandma introduced her to Elvis and gospel, and Texan relatives shared their favorite country and bluegrass albums with the budding pianist, guitarist and vocalist.
“Country will always be a part of me. True country, though. None of that Chesney drawl … sorry pop country lovers.”
Wonder also draws on current mainstream artists like Ellie Goulding and Bastille for musical inspiration, as well as grassroots musicians she’s met while touring.
“In the last year that I’ve been pursuing music more, I’ve had the opportunity to meet other grassroots artists whose music is radically shaping mine. Artists like Gabriel Wolfchild, Bradford Loomis, Penny & Sparrow, Samsel and the Skirt, and Joseph (to name a few) are some of my greatest inspiration at this point in my life.”
“Live … I can engineer my audience’s listening experience moment by moment as opposed to releasing tracks to an anonymous audience and not having any control over whether or not they end up connecting with the song.”
It’s this same engineering (which Wonder, seemingly anxious that such a statement may come across as sounding pretentious, admits is “hard to explain”), that creates the ethereal time-bounded quality of any given performance, on any given night.
It’s almost as if Wonder leaves ghosts behind in every city and town she visits.
Which brings us back to Lungs.
Wonder’s latest release is replete with lyrical apparitions, but as with anything fanciful, it’s worth asking what the authentic culminating effect of this chimerical sound is. The answer: one of the most raw and pained eulogies not to the death of a relationship, but to the death of love within a relationship still on its staggering feet.
In “Zombie,” Wonder sings of a lover lying, nearly effortlessly, to herself, her partner — possibly everyone she knows — that everything is “fine.” For more than a minute into the track, Wonder delivers this admission blankly and with minimal rising emotion, underscoring the tired numbness of the defeated lover. And then, at nearly the 1:30 mark, she suddenly offers the seething self-diagnosis that will punctuate, repeatedly and hauntingly, much of the remainder of the song:
How sick am I?
How sick am I?
I wish you’d leave me dead and dry.
The most radio-friendly track is what Wonder says was a “spontaneous addition” to the EP. “It’s Only Love” is a melancholic take on do-wop, complete with background “ooohs” and “dum-da-da-da-dums.” On first listen, it seems the ideal tune for a prom slow-dance, and even the lyrics repeatedly encourage a motionless lover to “ask her to dance.” The song moves through conditional phrases such as “It’s only love if he holds you tight, it’s only love if he keeps you warm at night.” The “ifs,” seem to promise a happily-ever-after: so long as the unnamed gentleman follows through on these simple acts of support, everything will be OK. Yet once again, Wonder masterfully and abruptly shifts lyrical gears and reveals:
And I know you’re about to give up on this fight
But it’s only love and you’ll be alright
And in under ten seconds the song becomes simultaneously a first and last dance — the fusion of giddy excitement over a boy asking a girl to dance, and the silent, routinized lockstep of an expired couple sharing their final minute and thirty seconds together before they exit the dance floor for good. “It’s Only Love” is also the EP’s shortest track (2:59), and as the song winds down to the final seconds, you get the sense that even the exhausted lovers would give just about anything for a few more moments.
But in the end it is only love, and what first impressed as the most hopeful track on the EP, suddenly becomes just another ghost.
You can listen to Lungs for free at noisetrade.com. If you like what you hear, you can opt to purchase at a price of your choosing, or even to share the page on Facebook or Twitter. To stay updated on Wonder’s upcoming live shows connect on Facebook.