Some records come with a backstory so compelling, it’s impossible to ignore. Observatory by Aeon Station is just such an album. The first solo record from Kevin Whelan, former singer of The Wrens, it comes almost two decades after The Meadowlands, the critically lauded album that seemed ready to break them into stardom but ended up being their final offering. Observatory consists of five songs that he wrote for the scrapped follow up (an album that was recorded and ready for release, then retracted at songwriter Charles Bissell’s request), and five that he wrote more recently. An attempt to sign to Sub Pop and release that retracted album in 2014 ended up going nowhere. Bisselll and Whelan remain estranged.
A story as film-worthy as this could overshadow the music itself. How could the songs possibly live up to tale of their genesis? Fortunately these ones do.
That origin story, rather than being the elephant in the room, provides the album’s creative spark. The theme throughout is of drawing a line under things; rather than being hampered by the past, moving on from it. The quality of the songwriting prevents things getting too self help manually. The lyrics convey a sense of hard-earned optimism, one that doesn’t seek to ignore the past but instead to make peace with it.
On ‘Leaves’, Whelan observes that you can’t “put the pieces back the way they came”. What could be defeatist instead sounds like someone reconciling themselves with the state of things. That he moves on to sing that “the dark has its light, the day needs its night” emphasises the maturity of the voice in its recognition that life gains its richness from the contrast of its hard times and its moments of joy. They are the words of someone moving forwards rather than backwards.
When Whelan sings “I’m never going back there anymore on ‘Everything At Once’, his renewed sense of agency is palpable, just at it is on album closer ‘Alpine Drive’s final coda of “I’m on my way back home”. Throughout the record he deploys recurring motifs of travel and movement to underscore his focus on the future. Ships and the open sea also pop up on several songs, adding a sense of adventure to this forward perspective.
Not all of the songs provide the same sense of closure. On ‘Queens’, he observes how hard it is “to leave you behind”, and here the past seems like a weight that he can’t shift. Meanwhile, ‘Air’ sees him asking “Why can’t I see what went wrong?”, a question that goes painfully unanswered. Rather than derailing the otherwise optimistic mood of the record, these songs strengthen it. As the album progresses there builds a sense that complete closure is not possible, nor necessary for moving on. It is a nuanced recognition of the knottiness of life and the way it rarely follows the neat path laid out in works of fiction.
Throughout, the arrangements are beautiful. Whether operating in intimate confessional mode on ‘Move’, his high-pitched vocals accompanied by slowly strummed guitar and occasional piano chords, or full on anthem territory on ‘Fade’, there is a sense of calculated restraint. Instruments are deployed judiciously to great effect. On several of the songs, a choir of voices appears for the chorus, offering a gentle melodic bed to sit underneath Whelan’s words.
Opener ‘Hold On’ begins with an evocative, simple piano motif that would be at home on an indie film soundtrack. Many of the songs are without percussion and when drums do appear, they complement rather than dominating. The percussion on ‘Air’, which sounds like sticks being played on a table rather than drums, is a case in point – mood building rather than bludgeoning.
All in all, this is a beautiful album that is all the better for not overburdening its songs with unnecessary additional arrangements or bombast. It would tempting to simply position it as a fitting end to a period of internecine band conflict and the start of a new phase for Whelan. In a way, it is. But this record deserves to be appreciated and enjoyed in its own right, not just as a symbol but as a collection of carefully written songs which are compelling on their own terms.
Words by Will Collins