Former Let’s Wrestle frontman (I wonder if he’s sick of seeing that yet?) Wesley Gonzalez struck out on his own in 2017 with what for many was a surprise stylistic curveball. The voice remained the same but gone were the scrappy punk and folkish lo-fi. In their place, on “Excellent Musician” was a Pulp infused sophisto-pop. It was at first disconcerting but actually quite brilliant and refreshing change. Nothing else sounded like it that year.
Given the shapeshifting of the previous album in comparison to his former band’s output what then are we to expect from the new album “Appalling Human”?
The name seems to suggest a sister record to the previous one (there’s a satisfying narrative that occurs when you combine both titles to create a sentence), but is it?
On first impressions, kind of… but not.
Opener “Tried To Tell Me Something” certainly has the sophisto-pop element but it is completely ramped up. It has the kind of 80s production that you can imagine being blasted out of a red convertible by a slick-back haired yuppy in a square shouldered jacket. The songwriting and execution shares far more in common with The Pointer Sisters, Prince and YMO than it does with Jarvis Cocker. The drum sounds, the saxophone at the beginning, the layered backing vocals and those string synth stabs all place this song in an era that had been consigned to record shop bargain bins in the early 2000s. It’s another bold move and it has to be said it actually kind of works for him! This song is such a statement we expect more of the same, however, glimmers of the “Excellent Musician” Gonzalez remain throughout.
“Wind Your Neck In” is less bombastic in its approach although again, the synth sounds are less wonky, far slicker. “Friend At First” is more sonically powerful. It has a fat buzzing bass line and short percussive phasing synth chords before a chorus heavily smeared in phaser. The melody is very recognisably Gonzalez.
He has become increasingly adept in his arrangements. There are moments of total minimalism followed by luscious sweeping synths in the catchy yet dark “A Fault In Your Design”.
“Change” brings back the 80s grooves with its funky bassline, woozy synths and grandiose melody (although through a Future Islands filter). It feels like a statement from the off.
“Things change, people change, you were a quiet boy at the local school” croons Gonzalez. It appears to be a letter to his younger self, getting things off his chest and fully embracing adulthood.
Next up is the excellent resurrected early single “Come Through & See Me”. It’s a phenomenal pop song with an “Ashes To Ashes” funk, biting lyrics and a brilliant chorus. It provides the perfect bridge between this and the previous album.
“Girl, You’re My Family Now” is a sweet, swooning love song. The punchy stop start middle 8 section is so rhythmically satisfying. It’s one of those moments you look forward to hearing every time.
The piano led “Used To Love You” is also really strong. It sounds like the kind of results we may have heard had Brian Wilson collaborated with Paul McCartney in 1980.
There are a couple of tracks that, while offering something a little different in approach, do not quite hit the mark.
“Fault Of The Family” is a little messy. The bassline half follows the vocal melody and distracts a little from some of the best lyrics on the record. The skittish drums, staccato bass and synth stabs of “The Mice” make for an interesting rhythmic experiment, and a markedly different approach, but it never feels like it really gets going.
The commitment to the synth, bass and drums approach is admirable but also leads to the album feeling a little bloated by “If I’m Sad”. It’s a fine song, with some interesting robotic atmospherics and more great lyrics. Despite the change up in approach of the previous two tracks, a complete instrumental change up earlier on may have helped make the strength of this song stand out more.
“Did You Get What You Paid For?” brings together most of the elements of the album. The piano, the soulful backing vocals, the saxophone that recalls the excellent Kaputt, and those wonderfully wobbly synths are all present. Gonzalez also delvers a powerful vocal performance in which he ruminates about family, quality of life and death. It ties the album together nicely.
“Appalling Human” is an album of great emotional depth. For the most part it’s a smart, often funny, knock out pop record. The bravery of his approach may lose him some fans but will no doubt solidify the hardcore fanbase. Exactly where Wesley Gonzalez turns next is anyone’s guess.
You may enjoy this if you like: Future Islands, Pulp
“Appalling Human” is out now via Moshi Moshi.