Wildlife, Headlights’ poignant third album, stems from particularly troubled beginnings. “It was a very difficult record,” relates guitarist and songwriter Tristan Wraight. While Wraight, fellow songwriter and keyboardist Erin Fein, and drummer Brett Sanderson have been touring and recording since 2004, this year found the band as a five piece for the first time with the addition of bassist Nick Sanborn and guitarist John Owen. Group dynamics are a difficult thing to predict, and the recording process proved tumultuous. After a few months, the band scrapped nearly everything. The fallout from the failed sessions eventually led to Owens’ amicable departure from the band.
“We had been so distracted by the issues going on internally, we stopped thinking about what we were writing, what exactly we were doing, what we were saying, and all the questions you should be asking,” Fein explains.
Fein and Wraight felt specific urgency in consolidating the band’s characteristic strong songwriting into something more nuanced and confidential. “For the first time this album holds personal significance for the band for very real reasons like growing up and people dying who you love,” Wraight says. Wildlife is an album haunted by the absence of those left and leaving and the alienation that comes in the wake of loss.
These emotions find expression in Headlights most arresting music yet. Similar to the band’s sophomore album Some Racing, Some Stopping, Wildlife was recorded at home and mixed by Sanderson. It is the result of a streamlined process, one in which the band worked out songs before hand – whether in the next room or on the road – and put them to tape live. “On this record we just sang, that’s the take, that’s the part, there’s the vocals, here’s the mic, sing the song, done,” Wraight says. As a result, Wildlife doesn’t sacrifice immediacy while still retaining the production flourishes that lend allure and a heightened emotional depth to each song.
The complexity of what the band worked through can’t be confined to standard verse-chorus structures, Wildlife sees Headlights stretching out on their instruments, letting songs breathe and grow in a manner similar to their accomplished live sets. “Telephones” launches the album with a soaring, guitar-led coda. The tight, claustrophobic verses and cyclic keyboards of “Secrets” frame a breathless meditation on grief before erupting into wordless catharsis. The album has it’s share of upbeat and joyous moments. “I Don’t Mind at All” is a blurred, chugging rocker in the vein of classic shoegaze. On “Get Going” acoustic guitar and a buoyant bassline drive the song to a euphoric chorus.
Wildlife is a work far more elegiac than rousing, where the intimacy and elegance of the songs never fail to remind us of what has been left behind. Rather than collapsing under the duress, Headlights have survived to surface with a collection of exquisite paeans to the transience of our friendships, lives, and aspirations. It is an album defined by moments like “Slow Down Town,” a hushed lament for lost youth, where Fein’s delicate vocals embrace all the vulnerability of adulthood, building into the most heartbreaking piece of Headlights’ catalog.