If Bill Wilson's sons weren't such badass rockers, they probably would have been philosophers. Thankfully, the Virginia-based Wilson brothers found a way to be both, infusing their new album Sirens — their third and strongest release — with a depth rarely seen in popular music. Sirens is straight rock 'n' roll, with only two tracks recalling the country feel of their previous albums. It is also packed with existential questioning, violence, and a sense of belonging to this particular American epoch.
"Santa Ana Winds," the first track and single, chronicles a California desert rat looking at the world around him and deciding to burn it all down. Over the opening bars, William Faulkner speaks lines from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "When the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, even then there will still be one more sound: that of man's puny, inexhaustible voice, still talking." It's the equivalent of starting the record with a bang.
"That speech is the key to the record," says ever deep-in-thought frontman James Wilson. "It was at a moment in time where Faulkner felt like he needed to make a statement about the role of the artist and the importance of what he's doing. It's ultimately a message of hope. Even though he writes about despairing things, he wants hope, and it felt like a time in our lives where we wanted to make a similar statement."
While the band didn't plan it in a "hard-line, concept album kind of way," James says Faulker's speech was their guiding principle for the record, based on similar feelings the whole band was experiencing.
"We've grown up with Faulkner," James says. "My dad teaches Faulkner [at the University of Virginia], so he's been the lion in the road — your big battle, the thing you're grappling with — for all of us to different degrees. He's just saying that the reason you write, the point of writing and the point of creating, listening, art's role in human life, is a way of articulating the human spirit in conflict with itself, and that alone makes good writing. And that's the tension between 'Santa Ana Winds' and [the final track] 'Virginia Calling.'"
Put another way, it is the tension between wanting to burn it all down and wanting to go home. There's more where that came from, too — this time from keys man Abe Wilson, who wrote "Santa Ana Winds" and "Last Call at the Eschaton," another mind-bender.
"I wrote it when the economy was in the doldrums, and there were lots of other things that were less than ideal," Abe says of "Last Call." "I wanted to write a song where you didn't know where the irony stops and starts, kind of like Randy Newman. A lot of people find that song hopeful, and a lot of people find it cynical. I wrote it and I'm not really sure."
The refrain, "Just remember that the twilight looks a whole lot like the dawn," initially strikes the listener as a caution against the Greek notion of hubris, but after further listening, it feels uplifting and stabilizing. Or maybe it's promoting another famous Greek ideal: moderation.
The Greek philosophical connections stem from the title track. "It's a thesis statement for the record," James says. "Like it poses the question the rest of the record sets out to answer, in whatever partial way it can. Sirens call the sailors off course, away from the goals in your life and what you should be doing, and yet you feel drawn to them anyway, against your better judgment. Rock 'n' roll is kind of this mythical lie or falsehood, which calls you off course from the way you should be living your life."
Ever the self-examiner, James wrote the ballad "Angry Eyes" about the mental anguish we put ourselves through, or as he puts it, "This grappling between grace and judgment, that empty part of you that looks out and judges the world, like the main character in 'Santa Ana Winds.'"
But even amid all this emotional digging, the album never loses its obligation to rock. At the end of "Turn it Up," another of Abe's songs, oldest brother Sam Wilson explodes into a four-minute guitar solo, starting slowly and building furiously, showing off his virtuoso guitar skills. And on the quieter second track, "Find My Way Back Home," Sam's voice channels vintage Ryan Adams to a tee.
Produced by David Lowery (of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven), Sirens also features the return of the band's original drummer, Todd Wellons, whose tight chemistry with bassist Seth Green propels the music forward. "He's my favorite drummer to play with. He's such a monster," James says. "But he's not only great as a drummer — just having him back, the chemistry was just there. We didn't have to do too much conceptualizing, it was just natural, and I think you can really hear that."
Wellons and Green, who've played together longer than they've played with the band, spent countless hours searching for and finding the rhythm to best express the feeling of each track.
"In the studio, we all kind of push each other quite a bit," Wellons says. "All five people have to be on the same page. If we do a take and it didn't feel great, someone will pipe up and say, 'Let's get our shit together.' That's what we're getting better at, being always aware of what everyone else is doing, and that's what really made this album, because it's a band album, not a singer-songwriter album with a backing band."
After finishing up in the studio, Abe says he noticed that there was a bit of post-rationalization about the meaning of the sirens as a whole. "If I had to sum it up, it's about moving boldly and blindly into the future because we don't have any choice," he says. "Whether or not it's the economy or the environment or overpopulation, it's like, what are we supposed to do besides keep moving forward and trying to do the right thing and having faith in something?"