Album Review: Wilding scatters a joyous irreverent hue into the universe with his scintillating new album ‘Whatever I Am’

Feature Photograph: Lee Hooper

The Breakdown

Wilding is back in better form than ever, with an album laced with his trademark irreverent sense of humour and a draftsman’s eye for details of the vagaries of the human condition.
Half A Cow Records 9.0

it’s been nearly four years since one of our favourite artists, Naarm/Melbourne’s Wilding, released ‘The Death Of Foley’s Mall’ through the legendary Half A Cow label (see my review here) and a later compilation album ‘Hello….My Name Is Wilding’ (reviewed here). Now, Wilding is back with an album of brand new material in ‘Whatever I Am’ and the universe seems brighter.

Wilding – the brainchild of Justin Wilding Stokes – is the sonic architect of some very fine whimsical, intelligent pop and we have been following his career for a number of years. He is back in better form than ever, with an album laced with his trademark irreverent sense of humour and a draftsman’s eye for details of the vagaries of the human condition.

Wilding does not shy away from his English heritage both in delivery and construction, but that doesn’t mean this album, with its genetic codes embedded on its sleeve, is a carbon copy or a pastiche. Wilding brings his own colour and depth to the material, and, with his delicious poetry, he is the Oscar Wilde of indie pop.

Stokes says:

The lyrics are the most important song element for me. I try to use characters, and sometimes obnoxious ones, to explore how I feel about myself and my place in the world. There’s a personal anxiety to it all but plenty of humour and empathy too.

The characters in my songs each have their own ways of dealing with the daily absurdities of trying to get by. And each of them is a reflection of me. So, if that’s the case, what am I? I don’t know. I’m confused. I suppose that’s normal.

We are taken on a wild ride that positively sparkles with insight and a certain warm affection for the characters, however obscene, perverse or mundane they might be.

Opening track ‘I Am’ is a funky blast that high-steps its way into your head with a wry delivery that has an Ian Dury cockney tinge mixed with a Pulp swagger. Stokes says of the track:

‘I Am’ is a song about identity. I sing a sardonic laundry list of words that asks us who we are and how we see ourselves. And whether this even matters. I decided instead it’s better to not ponder this idea for too long. I like the juxtaposition of slightly melancholic lyrics with an upbeat energetic sound. The mix of happy and sad. ‘I Am’ does this. While the lyrics are darkly contemplative, the music is banging! In a Britpop-indie-disco type of way.

There is jaunty swagger with a laundry list of identities that defines the singer as he asks do you still want me?

‘Same Old Day’ is another dappling ray of aural sunshine with a slightly wonky ramble and Wilding’s sardonic and wry delivery. There is detectable a slight fairground, carnival lilt, redolent perhaps of bands like Madness, doffing a jaunty cap at the vicissitudes of life.

According to Stokes:

‘Same Old Day’ is a song about ordinary struggles. The struggle to get off the sofa. The struggle to pay the bills. The struggle to eat healthy. The struggle to turn off the telly. The struggle to get a night’s sleep. But mostly, the struggle to finish a crossword.

But, in his usual style, it’s not all smelling salts enveloped in a pall of doom: Wilding delivers a high-trotting pace and an arched Wildean eyebrow. You can’t help but do a merry jig as you hear of the misery and gloom of a mundane existence.

You cannot deny the Blur-era Britpop jaunt of ‘As Long as It’s Easy’ with a touch of The Kinks with its indelible melodies and splashing guitars and wry observations on the vicissitudes of life – you can get what you want as long as it’s easy. From this track it’s a hop skip and a jump to the cheeky chappy delivery of ‘Here Comes Badger Jones’ with its Supergrass lilt. You can almost see Wilding high stepping in his eighteen-hole Doc Marten boots through the cobbled streets of an industrial English town with a knotted handkerchief on his head, clutching at his braces.

‘I Still Love You’ turns down the dial slightly but still tells tall tales in Stokes’s inimitable style with a rose-tinged romanticism. The vivid description of the mundanity of life is poetic and beautiful in its, at times, raw ugliness.

‘Logical Steve’ is a terrific depiction of that character we’ve all endured at the pub. In Wilding’s words:

I’ve met many logical Steves at the pub. The guy that’s slightly pissed, invades your personal space, and then tells you all his opinions. Slightly scary at first, but you’re reluctant mates by the end of the night.

His lyrics are as always endearing and affectionate, with his ability to capture the foibles of our society:

The modern world’s falling on deaf ears
Mid-strength beers, avoids his fears
Sunglasses perched upon his head
No regrets. spaghetti alphabet

Wilding’s ultimately kind treatment of this character is delivered in his whip smart angular pop carriage – melodic and robust with sharp, punchy guitars, jaunty synths skipping in the ether and a percussive thump. Wilding’s delivery has a Blur/Jona Lewie edge – wry, observant and louche.

‘Difficult Day’ travels a slightly different path with its depiction of – well, what it says on the label:

I’m having trouble now I’m alone
I banged my head on the toilet bowl
I’m late for the train, my coffee is weak
l can’t seem to break this losing streak
I’m having a difficult day, a difficult day

The track trots along at a high-stepping pace with a fairground whirligig spin that tumbles out of the speakers. Wilding’s fey musings are filled with a self-deprecatory style – in his own words,

‘Difficult Day’ is a self-depreciating whinge about minor frustrations. But all said, my life is
pretty great, so I have to keep checking myself that I don’t sweat the small stuff.

There is a discordant whirligig sound to ‘Technology Man’ with Stokes’s delivery reminiscent of The Specials with a Madness wackiness which flows through to ‘Spender’ and ‘Free’, infused with a wry and observant lyricism.

Final track ‘He’s Got Such Nasty Habits’ has an anthemic ring with its descending guitar chords and the vocals rougher and more rock’n’roll and a chorus that is as soaring, pulsating and emotional as anything by Bruce Springsteen with a touch of The Boomtown Rats.

This is a hugely entertaining album filled with warmth, humour and compassion on a bed of pulse-quickening instrumentation with more bounce than a mattress with innerspring.

‘Whatever I Am’ is out now and available to download and stream here. Wilding will be launching the album on 10 May – details below and tickets here. Stokes says of the launch:

I’m always excited to jump on stage with the Wilding band. It’s so energetic and euphoric! It’s exciting times for us as we move forward as an established band, rather than a solo project. We’ll be getting to regional Victoria and the East Coast again soon.
We’re launching the album at our favourite watering hole, The Old Bar, Fitzroy on Friday 10 May. Joining Wilding will be the melancholically uplifting jangle-pop of Redspencer and the post-punk sounds of newcomers Follies.

Feature Photograph: Lee Hooper

Album Art by: Justin Wilding Stokes

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