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Wussy’s American Gothic

The Ohio band has been quietly crafting one of the great rock catalogs of the decade. But their latest album, ‘What Heaven Is Like,’ is too good to be kept secret.

Wussy Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s something about the name Gloria that makes people want to sing it. Or spell it out: In 1964, a then-unknown Irish songwriter named Van Morrison crafted his first classic with three chords and a chorus that deconstructed the 5-foot-4 object of his affections, one scarlet letter at a time—G-L-O-R-I-A. A few years later, the other Morrison—that’d be Jim—scored a Billboard hit for the Doors with a sublimely sleazy cover version. Next up, Patti Smith revised the melody and added some sacrilegious subtext, reinventing the eponymous subject as a figure of jagged punk defiance. Laura Branigan’s inescapable 1982 disco earworm nearly wore the name out for good, but Bruce Springsteen, Green Day, and U2 have all since bestowed it on heroines of their own.

There are plenty of good tunes called “Gloria,” is what I’m saying, but the lead single of the Ohio-based rock band Wussy’s seventh studio album, What Heaven Is Like, holds its own with the best of them. Over a thick, intricate mesh of guitars and keyboards, singer Lisa Walker conjures up a mundanely menacing Midwestern landscape of “baseball fields and fairgrounds in the snow,” and nighttimes with “haunted flashing lights” traversed by a woman on a mission. The blackness is everywhere, but Gloria isn’t daunted or spooked. “She believes in something brighter than the darkness that surrounds,” Walker insists with a mix of admiration and gratitude. As her voice disappears from the mix on an extended outro, an array of chiming, coruscating riffs provide their own warm, incandescent illumination.

If the noirish narrative and lush production on “Gloria” feel uncommonly dramatic for indie rockers whose brand has always been proudly lo-fi, there’s a reason. In a recent interview with Stereogum, Walker explained that she wrote “Gloria” as a tribute to the perpetually perplexed but resilient police chief played by Carrie Coon on Season 3 of Fargo, which Walker binge-watched in a haze after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. While the show’s all-encompassing bleakness enhanced the Indiana native’s sense of political alienation, Coon’s brilliantly empathetic performance—derived but distinct from Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning turn in the original movie—served as a source of inspiration. “Gloria became this very hallowed character for me,” Walker explained. “The invisible woman who rises up. ... She’s the goddamn hero we need right now.”

I myself have thought that of Walker, who’d be my first pick if I had to draft an indie-rock all-star team. She’s been a goddamn hero since the first time I heard her sweet, soaring voice all over Wussy’s 2005 album, Funeral Dress. Robert Christgau, the band’s biggest critical champion and the catalyst for their ascent from total to only-semi obscurity over the past decade and a half, described that record, succinctly and accurately, as “11 three-minute songs, all about perfect, one after the other after the other.” Consistency—not to be confused with monotony—is sort of Wussy’s thing. At this point, after maybe 70 three-minute songs and the odd five-minute epic, they’ve perfected a form of droning, melodic country-rock that’s supple enough to support experiments with grunge, distorto-pop, and psychedelia.

They’ve been heading more and more in this latter direction. 2016’s Forever Sounds roared and squalled more than it strummed or jangled, and What Heaven Is Like is their day-dreamiest and least-rootsy record to date, subsuming rock ’n’ roll into a broader, rainbow-colored sonic palette. But the formal experimentation is always intelligent and controlled. Wussy’s stylistic reach never exceeds its members’ ironclad grasp on the eternal verities of riff-verse-chorus structures. Guitarist John Erhardt, bassist Mark Messerly, and drummer Joe Klug offer rock-solid rhythmic support. And even when the production gets heavy or even apocalyptic, it supports rather than subordinates the superb vocal interplay of Walker and her cosongwriter and front-person Chuck Cleaver, whose previous act, the Ass Ponys—best known for the wacky, elastic not-quite-hit “Little Bastard” off the Empire Records soundtrack—only hinted at the greatness that the long-serving indie veterans would achieve via their collaboration.

If we put aside “perfect” as a category, there are three kinds of Wussy songs: ones where Cleaver sings lead, ones where Walker sings lead, and ones that are conceived as he-said-she-said duets. The common denominators across these groupings include, in no particular order: self-deprecating humor; quotidian bitterness; open-hearted emotion; veiled autobiography; narrative and metaphorical specificity; vivid rural-Gothic details; and a deep immersion in an American rock tradition stretching from the Velvet Underground and Television to R.E.M. and Yo La Tengo (that’s my evidently mainstream frame of reference; I expect longtime record collector Cleaver’s is a lot cooler).

Sometimes, these strands all interlace at once, as on the amazing, galvanizing “Teenage Wasteland” from 2014’s Attica!, their most perfect song, which Walker addresses directly to Pete Townshend to thank him for rocking her adolescent world, and which goes just as hard at the end as its epochal British-Invasion inspiration. (Since I can’t do better than Charles Taylor’s appreciation of this song and its sheer jaw-dropping awesomeness in the Los Angeles Review of Books, here it is.)

As for the differences: Without generalizing too much, I’d say that Cleaver’s showcases tend toward witty eccentricity-slash-self-pity, à la the Ass Ponys, while Walker mines a vein of wistful nostalgia. The streams cross plenty, though, and the consistency of their output doesn’t preclude curveballs. Cleaver has a poetic sensitivity that belies his rumpled-roustabout look, and he can grasp gravitas when he wants to. Walker’s pop-cultural fixations skip between earnest and droll without ever asking the listener to choose. On 2016’s Forever Sounds, she delivered a tribute to Steve Buscemi’s quiet bowler from The Big Lebowski, recreating his death by heart attack in the midst of a clash with the members of the (fictitious) nihilistic German techno band Autobahn. It’s a stark, grinding, ashes-to-ashes eulogy with copious pedal steel and lyrics directly referencing the Coen brothers’ screenplay. It would be ridiculous if not for the absolute conviction in Walker’s singing, which adopts the mournful point of view of John Goodman’s ex-Marine, Walter, and never once plays things for laughs. (Between “Gloria” and “Donny’s Death Scene,” Walker is evidently a Coen brothers fan—is it too much to hope for an album of Llewyn Davis covers next?)

As a fan who was first hooked by Funeral Dress’s skittering, blistering opener, “Airborne,” in which the pair go furiously back and forth Rashomon-style recounting the precise, hilarious details of a painful breakup, I find up-tempo Chuck-vs.-Lisa sprints especially invigorating. “It’s clear that I adore you, I didn’t mean to bore you,” he pleads, before she retorts, “You don’t really love me, you remind me every day.” It’s public knowledge that Cleaver and Walker used to be a couple, and that they broke up without breaking up the band, so the preponderance of cheating, heartbreak, and thwarted reconciliations in their songbook has a bit of extra ache. Still, even the most scathing scenarios have their share of laugh lines (“Honey, I’m in love, and you’re in bed with what’s-his-name”) and there’s exhilaration in hearing them harmonize, even when it’s in the context of a knock-down-drag-out brawl.

Depending on their mutual mood, Cleaver’s gritty, goofy whine and Walker’s crystalline wail can wind around each other like razor wire or veer off on different trajectories entirely. On the Attica! standout “To the Lightning,” they’re singing what sounds like entirely different songs at the same time during the verses before coming together on the exuberant chorus, which evokes the textured vocal weaves of Michael Stipe and Mike Mills circa Reckoning.

One thing that I’ve noticed about What Heaven Is Like is that it feels a bit more split than its predecessors into Chuck songs and Lisa songs, with only the heavy, shuffling “Tall Weeds” giving off that vintage Wussy his-and-hers vibe. Which is not to say that the album is scattered. Conceptually, it’s of a piece, with the post–Donald Trump malaise that Walker felt while writing “Gloria” manifesting in various guises over 10 mostly excellent tracks. “Don’t you wish you could have been an astronaut?” queries Cleaver on the opening “One Per Customer,” whose aggrieved titular refrain suggests a subtext of aging and mortality (“Sorry, sir, there’s only one per customer”) heightened by allusions to death-defying daredevils like Neil Armstrong and Evel Knievel.

These are boomer-era icons that the 58-year-old ex-stonemason character in the song deploys to satirize his own obsolescence as well as reactionary MAGA rhetoric. On “Aliens in Our Midst,” Wussy repurposes a lost ’70s garage-rock nugget to voice a nicely double-sided paranoia: What better way to express alienation than a song about actual aliens? Here, Cleaver’s freaked out ’50s-sci-fi-movie panic evokes the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but he’s not watching the skies; he’s got his eye on the They Live–style usurpers in the White House and their supporters on the ground. Elsewhere, “Gloria” and Walker’s fragile, gently glowing “Firefly” locates little flickers of optimism before the climactic “Black Hole” drags everything down into a gorgeous vortex of strings and pedal steel.

“It’s the last time around,” sings Walker on “Black Hole,” an ominous and possibly self-conscious lyric hinting at the end of the world as we know it, and maybe of Wussy as well. Nothing lasts forever: sic transit Gloria? Cleaver laughed off the idea in an interview with Billboard, saying, “We’re evil sons of bitches.” But it’s also telling that the major angle of nearly every Wussy interview and profile remains unchanged: This is the best band you’ve never heard of.

This marginality and the discontent it breeds is another aspect of Wussy’s consistency. Asking whether their sound is “commercial” is beside the point, as is wondering if they’d have been more popular at a different moment in musical history, like, say, the mid-to-late ’90s, when spiritually similar acts like Wilco and the Old 97’s broke out in the lull between grunge and rap-rock. Maybe, maybe not. Wussy’s confidence and craftsmanship—and evident, enduring commitment to the Cincinnati-based record store-slash-record-label Shake It!—doesn’t suggest they’re waiting for their big break. Like its predecessors, What Heaven Is Like is very good—at times, just about perfect—and I’m pretty sure that’ll go for the next record, and the next one, and so on. I also suspect that Wussy will remain 21st-century indie’s sweetest and best-kept secret. But the thing about secrets is that they’re fun to share. Pass it on.