Longtime fans of The Wrens are no strangers to long waits. The rollout for their acclaimed last record The Meadowlands started in 1999, only to be delivered in 2003. Even as the wait for a follow-up stretched beyond 15 years, there was always anticipation from some that it could come. For almost two decades now the bits and pieces of information about the album has trickled out via social media, largely from Charles Bissell’s thoughtful string dangling. His blunt honesty about the writing process reassured fans that this was happening, and it was only a matter of time before the stars aligned and a new Wrens album was here… but it didn’t come. Such is the case with a band so beloved that they couldn’t meet the expectations set by themselves.
It wasn’t really a rouse, Bissell likely hoped to get it out there. But for the various reasons that have plagued the band for years, it’s 2021 and there isn’t a new Wrens record, and there probably won’t be.
Per Kevin Whelan, the completed fourth Wrens record was submitted to Sub Pop in 2013, only for Bissell to retract it, finish it on his own time, and resubmit it six years later under new agreements with his band. Two years later, after all the feet dragging, Aeon Station is here, a new project fronted by Whelan with the help of the other two Wrens members, Greg Whelan and Jerry MacDonald.
Listening to Observatory, which features Kevin Whelan’s contributions to the fourth Wrens record plus another handful of new material, there’s a certain sense of incompleteness. Maybe that’s strictly because of the dark cloud that hangs over The Wrens now, with all this current knowledge about the band’s alleged demise. Bissell’s expected to deliver his portion at a later date, and while the two aren’t on speaking terms, it’s only slightly reassuring to hear Observatory knowing that it’s only the partial product of almost 20 years of anticipation.
Impossible as it may seem, Observatory isn’t a Wrens record despite its DNA. There are minor similarities obviously, but the downtempo, lovelorn nature of The Meadowlands isn’t the focus of Aeon Station’s debut. Whelan’s work in The Wrens was less sappy than Bissell’s, and that continues on Observatory with bangers like “Fade”, which does sound somewhat displaced in 2021’s brand of indie rock but is nevertheless a strong showing. How it would have fit into the Wrens fourth we’ll never know, but isolated here it’s one of Observatory’s most exhilarating moments.
Refining these tracks down to what Whelan wanted was probably the right move, given Bissell’s immobility on the task. Gone is the haze of The Meadowlands, and in its place is a wintery feel; there’s almost a quiet animosity on “Hold On”, the album’s gentle opener. Whelan’s deliberately forging Aeon Station’s own path here. This is evident in the resilient “Leaves”, which could be read as a divorce note to his former act: “You can’t put the pieces back the way they came.”
This makes Observatory a break-up record essentially. Whelan has declared these to be some of the best songs he’s ever written, and this is supported by his passion found on songs like the blustering lead single “Queens”. It’s clearly one of the tracks written for The Wrens, its structure is so much like their material in the way its immediacy doesn’t let up much across its five-minute run time.
Ultimately the album feels split. One half is dreamy odes to regret and dismay, but coupled with vibrant instrumentation, like on “Air”, which feels just as vast as one would expect from that title. The other half is marked by maturity, as a song like “Better Love” institutes hope, something The Wrens were never known for. It’s been 18 years since Whelan’s last album, so the fact that he’s not the same person is a good sign, and it furthers the disassociation from the former band.
Observatory is ultimately not the Wrens record we all wanted, but it’s what we have and it’s better than it has any right to be given all the turmoil of its conception. These 10 tracks are labors of love from Whelan, a man fed up with waiting and fed up with putting his art and life on hold for years. What the band has produced with this record is merely half of what was possible. That’s not to dismiss Whelan’s songwriting ability, but there’s no doubt that there’s an air of what could have been in hearing them. Perhaps, like Whelan, we should be living more in the moment.