There is a contradiction that hounds all music that resides somewhere near the crossroads of art and pop, said contradiction being more or less that art music is supposed to provoke and challenge the listener, while pop music is supposed to be catchy and digestible. Art music pokes you in the arm (kind of hard) and sits down to ask you troubling questions about man’s place in the universe; pop music lies down at your feet and looks cute (if you think I’m being dismissive of pop music, ask yourself which of those things would be more welcome in your life at this very moment). A hybrid of these two styles is almost by definition impossible. A catchy melody gets stuck in your head and repeats itself endlessly, often on a first or second hearing. You find yourself humming it while making toast. This is the exact opposite of the awareness and attention and work that art music is supposed to require. You do not often find yourself mumbling excerpts from the Rite of Spring while pouring milk over your generic-brand Cheerios.
Since good art music is by definition challenging, it requires of its creators a restlessness that would, generally speaking, devour a pop song whole, leaving only fragments behind. Think for example of the Akron/Family song “Part of Corey”, which takes a delicate acoustic song and buries much of it in brutal static. When someone with this natural adventurous spirit decides to dedicate their life to pop music, we reap the always intriguing and sometimes baffling benefits. Why no, I haven’t forgotten about Trevor Wilson. This is just where Trevor Wilson comes in. First, an introduction: Wilson is a New England born pianist and songwriter possessed of an unusual fluttering voice, birdlike but substantial, which he controls with pleasing precision, ending most phrases with a burst of tightly packed vibrato. Vibrato has fallen out of style these days what with all the I’m-just-a-fragile-yet-soulful-guy-in-my-bedroom things going on, but man, sometimes it just sounds great. Wilson is relevant here not only because this article is about him but also because he has a predilection for very complex and conceptual pop music and because in the last few years he has produced a number of fantastic and completely different works, featuring incredibly detailed orchestrations, unorthodox forms, and melodies that draw recklessly from some of the newest and oldest traditions of pop music. In his vocal swoops and quicksand harmonies, you can even hear strains of jazz, back when jazz was pop.
2007’s Tall Ships, the name of a five-piece band that has since disbanded, features the contrapuntal male-female vocals that are one of the staples of Wilson’s songs. Lacking the conceptual angle of the more recent stuff, Tall Ships features a number of songs about things, but the most striking elements here are the gentle and subtle complexities of rhythm and form. Three of the first four songs are in five-four time, something you probably wouldn’t notice until you’d listened through a few times, and the vocal melodies leap and curve all over the place. Try singing along. It’s hard. The songs also feature some seriously nontraditional harmony, which blows by you so fast under the busy melodies that again, it takes a long time to even notice. Instruments definitely suggest their own directions, harmonically speaking, and Wilson’s being a pianist has certainly affected his songwriting in a delightful and refreshing way.
Plants & Bodies, released last year, is a collection of two themed song cycles. The first, full of plant metaphors that are sometimes more appropriate than others, features huge arrangements, packed to overflowing with accordion, strings, harp, percussion and scores of voices, while the second uses a more pared down piano and voice setup, bringing Wilson’s voice into the fore and providing a detox period after the madly bustling orchestrations of the first half. The songs swing and bounce and coast and glide and never ever stop moving, in a way that is both immensely satisfying and really difficult. It takes a few spins through before you start to get your bearings, but like most music that requires some work, it’s incredibly rewarding. Hearing the drums quickly paraphrase the vocal line, or the sudden entrance and disappearance of a richly harmonious string quartet is the kind of thing that makes art music so nourishing. The more you listen, the more you begin to see all the carefully positioned elements, like easter eggs coded into a video game for diehard fans. The first time I ever met Wilson he spent thirty minutes compulsively aligning the CDs I had given him with the corner of the coffee table (while we were talking, he’s not a weirdo), so I have no doubt that every note here is full of intention.
This year has seen the online-only release (via Wilson’s Bandcamp site) of a triptych of conceptual song cycles. The first, entitled Growth & Decay and concerned with the very same stuff, is written for string quartet, vocal quartet and lead vocalist. The second is an album of ukulele driven compositions, entitled Anawan. And the third, from which “B-side “Destination” is drawn, is from Hard Times, an album concerned with the post-college lull and economic downturn. Not to mention, of course, this here digital single, which features two new tracks. The first, “El Regalo”, is a bit of an outlier in Wilson’s catalogue, by his own description, while the second, “Destination”, comes from the Hard Times ghost album, as Wilson calls it.
“El Regalo”, sung oddly enough in Spanish, features a dancy, reggaeton inspired beat (creatively spiced up with some disguised vocal sounds) and at least two of those incredibly catchy syllabic melodies that Wilson manages to insert into nearly every single song he writes. The middle section deviates away from the more traditional-sounding verse melody and into some increasingly trippy Os Mutantes style latin-psych, with guitar and piano taking increasingly frantic and atonal solos over a lazily descending vocal line. B-side “Destination” streams neatly rhyming post-college depression lyrics (pride and guilt start pouring in/can’t move back into mom’s basement) over a bouncy, two-triad, oom-pah piano figure that honestly sounds a bit like an Andrew Lloyd Weber song. The lyrics are alternately silly and dark, displaying a healthy skepticism of Wilson’s newly acquired degree, and settling finally on humble acceptance and a lime-juicing scheme. The willingness displayed here to do things like sing in spanish, take an 80 second guitar solo in a song that’s less than three minutes long, and play with genres as untouched by most indie poppers as reggaeton and showtunes is exactly the kind of thing that makes Wilson worth listening to and following, though this kind of openness inherently leads to some missteps.
Wilson calls forthcoming album Anawan “an investigation of the effects of constantly searching,” a phrase that could easily be taken and applied to his entire musical career thus far. Even within the boundaries of individual songs he is bursting with ideas, shifting forms, keys, melodies. You get the sense that the triumphant breakthrough is somewhere ahead of him, maybe not too far, and that when he hits it, the first thing he will do is start looking for the next one.