Album Review: Wyldest – Monthly Friend

[Hand In Hive; 2021]

Given that Zoe Mead – aka Wyldest – uses her second proper album to explore themes of womanhood, gender stereotypes, and societal constraints, it’s telling that she begins with a word that carries significant weight when you’re female: “sorry.” Exploring the complexities of a mutually beneficial relationship dynamic, Mead tangles with both sides of the coin until she comes to a conclusion that’s as quietly devastating as it is reflective of how many relationships in society work: “It’s easier to just pretend / So I lie to you,” she effuses.

This chorus from opening track “Beggar” is a rare moment of weighted clarity on Monthly Friend, an album that’s hard to hate, but equally hard to be passionate or excited about in any regard. Mead seems to merely exist across the album’s 10 tracks, never rousing anything resembling a passionate feeling or attitude. It’s like the whole thing is an academic or professional exercise designed to be void of heart. As she fittingly continues on “Beggar”, “There’s nothing here but bones and skin.”

Make no mistake though: Monthly Friend sounds pretty darn marvellous, and that Mead wrote, recorded, mixed, and produced the whole thing herself is a feat to be recognised. Guitar tones shimmer, like the melancholic acoustic strums on “Hollow”, and keys chirp with a sweet calm on the introduction of “Buddy”. Each instrument and note is captured with precision and care; it’s not meticulously overproduced or overworked, but exacted enough so that the human spirit is gone. You could find something pleasant in each individual moment (the bristling drums on “Hollow”, or the languid bass on “Glue” for instance), but only if you cared to delve in and do so.

It doesn’t help, then, that, like Wyldest’s previous releases, the rewards don’t come instantly, and time is needed for the pleasures of the music to unfold. But here the pleasures feel limited, and are best devoured in small individual doses. Mead’s higher register against the fluttering synths on “Almost Bliss” makes for a breezy and lucid moment, while on the aforementioned “Buddy” she pipes up that she “[doesn’t] need a cigarette” with the feeling that it’s some significant retort to a conversion we just came in on.

Taken altogether though, Monthly Friend forms into a sort of beige soundscape. The directionless title track feels ready to be taken off into the distance by a stiff breeze, and “Arrows” sounds like it might be describing a night sky during wartime (“Arrows fly tonight / Across the sky / Burst into flames”) but the lack of weight put behind the words makes it hard to care. Even when Mead is delivering her most scathing lines on “Hollow (“You are hollow on the inside… You are covered in skin / With the heart of a reptile”) she does so with such passing indifference that the song’s subject matter is lost in the featherweight and airy production.

It genuinely would be great to say more about the album, but the sad fact is that there’s so little to discuss. Mead’s themes of womanhood and gender identity are there in the occasional unenthused lines, but poring over them with an analytic eye feels like the critical equivalent of eating dry muesli when you’re severely dehydrated. Monthly Friend is serviceable indie rock at best, but it’s hard to meet it with anything greater than apathy and indifference.

And it does feel like there are skeletons of some decent songs somewhere here. One wonders if they might get better and more enjoyable life if all the shiny production were stripped away, much like with Redream Chaos, where Mead took apart and reimagined her debut album Dream Chaos with acoustic soundscapes, field recordings, and ambient textures, and the end result was the most absorbing and fascinating turn that has the Wyldest name on it. That fate may not await Monthly Friend, and, equally, it’s easy to worry it might not help salvage it. But as it stands, it’s easier to get more excited about a different version of the album that doesn’t even exist than the one we have before us at this moment in time.