“Hold On” is a peculiar choice for a leadoff track. Observatory is also a peculiar debut – its artist, Aeon Station, was unknown until Sub Pop announced Observatory last fall, and no one was more surprised to learn about the album than Charles Bissell, one of its credited engineers.
The album’s entire rollout has been notably weird. Observatory has received prominent coverage in The New York Times and The Guardian, despite Aeon Station being an unfamiliar name. The bulk of this coverage has focused on the narrative around Observatory’s inception – of indie band The Wrens violently fracturing nearly two decades after the release of their last album, 2003’s critically acclaimed The Meadowlands; of a handful of songs by Wrens bassist Kevin Whelan sitting in limbo for many of those years, while guitarist Bissell worked to complete the band’s next record in his home studio; and of Whelan’s patience running out after COVID hit, leading him to release his music on his own terms.
Now instead of the long-awaited fourth Wrens LP, fans have Observatory, which is a collection of songs by Kevin Whelan alone. Some were recorded ten years ago, while the rest happened quickly in 2021. Aeon Station is referred to in press materials both as a solo project and a band, as Observatory features contributions from two other Wrens (drummer Jerry MacDonald and guitarist/Kevin’s brother Greg Whelan), both of whom are set to perform live with Kevin under the Aeon Station name in just a few weeks. Charles Bissell, the odd Wren out, will see his own solo album released by Sub Pop under a different name yet to be announced.
There’s nothing unusual about a band imploding, even this many years in (see Lindsey Buckingham’s dramatic expulsion from Fleetwood Mac in 2018). But there are unique factors with the Wrens, starting with Bissell effectively managing all things associated with the band’s name for the last decade-plus. Not only has completing the now never-to-be-released album sat entirely in his hands, he has also maintained an active online presence under the Wrens’ social channels, occasionally sharing new audio snippets with fans and even inviting a few to his Brooklyn home (myself included, back in November 2016 – more on that later) to hear the album in various stages of completion.
At times throughout the years, Charles has sounded more excited about non-traditional rollout ideas for the album than about finishing the music itself, even considering auctioning off his home studio plus all related equipment and audio files as the sole “original” version of the record. Increasingly, the Wrens seemed to have become one man’s art project; now suddenly, he’s the only Wren without a band.
The most recent (and presumably final) official release under the Wrens name is a song called “Three Types of Reading Ambiguity,” which appeared on a limited edition cassette available to subscribers of the now-defunct ESOPUS Magazine in 2015. Bissell generously gave me a copy during my visit, and “Reading” is unmistakably his creation (as is the conceptual execution and format) – but Kevin Whelan is present on the track, to a degree that I have to assume means the track will only be a part of Bissell’s upcoming solo LP in a significantly altered form.
On their early records, back when the Wrens seemed like they might ascend to next-big-thing status, the contrast between the two lead singer-songwriters was central to their appeal. Bissell’s vocal style evoked Bob Mould, and he effectively played the role of the band’s cerebral art-rock guru. His songs typically balanced sharply-honed melodicism with smart and self-effacing lyrics, and he was largely responsible for the band’s trademark rapid-fire, dissonant guitar parts.
If Bissell was college rock, Whelan was something closer to hardcore, hurling his bass at the crowd from center stage and pounding his keyboard with manic intensity. Kevin’s vocal style straddled unabashed glam and power pop, and his songs had swagger. It’s easy to hear how record labels eager to capitalize on the ‘90s alt rock boom might have dreamed on Whelan as their next Scott Weiland or Gavin Rossdale, but Whelan offered more substance and vitality than most frontmen of the era.
The Wrens’ sophomore LP, 1996’s absurdly underappreciated Secaucus, shows both Bissell and Whelan at the height of their powers. Hear the virtuosic range Charles covers between tracks like the hyper, Sugar-like “Hats Off to Marriage, Baby” and the poignant, Brian Wilson-influenced “Jane Fakes a Hug,” and hear how confidently Kevin sells the Roxy Music groove of “Built In Girls” and the theatrical bombast of “Still Complaining.”
As the band’s success dreams fell apart at the millennium’s end, Whelan and Bissell’s respective sounds evolved into something new and even more complementary. While Charles continued down the path of increasingly ambitious pop compositions and arrangements, Kevin shifted his core sound from glam toward emo. The Meadowlands presented an older, more jaded Wrens, with both songwriters looking back at lost opportunities and forward to an uncertain future. This is best illustrated on fan favorite “Hopeless,” where Whelan’s pained, accusatory verses build toward a cathartic and downright catchy hook of a chorus penned by Bissell. “Hopeless” remains the songwriters’ finest truly collaborative achievement, and it also stands as a reminder of what fans could have had if the Wrens had gotten the chances they deserved in their prime.
Then came the long wait. For all the stories of failure The Meadowlands captures so vividly, each band member found success in their subsequent work and family lives (check out Stereogum’s hilarious 2007 exchange with drummer MacDonald in which he sincerely tries to explain his job selling “operation processing outsourcing technology platforms to investment managers” to an understandably baffled Brandon Stosuy). New Wrens songs dropped here and there (including the wonderful demo of “Crescent” that I wrote about in my song-a-day posts from December 2019). The last of these was “Three Types of Reading Ambiguity.”
“Reading Ambiguity” might be the only officially released illustration of the Bissell/Whelan musical dynamic in its end stage. Here, Bissell repurposes and expands upon the ii-IV-I-V chord progression that was so effective in his “Hopeless” chorus to underpin an epic remembrance of his mother, a tragedy spanning three different locations called Reading. The lyrics can be hard to make out, but someone took the time to transcribe Bissell’s lightly annotated words on Genius, and they’re incredibly moving – worth reading even if you don’t listen to the song.
Three and a half minutes into the track (at least in the version that’s made it to YouTube), Kevin Whelan’s voice enters over gentle piano arpeggios, almost whispering what could be half-written placeholder lyrics: “When all the weight / The rain goes down / My own…” The interlude is brief, and ultimately gives way to the harder-rocking back half of Bissell’s composition.
On first listen, the song’s cut-and-paste format is pretty jarring – a full 180 from the seamless Kevin/Charles balance on “Hopeless.” It sounds like Whelan’s contribution has been beamed in from another planet, and that’s probably not so far from the truth. At minimum, his part was written and recorded in another house, in another state, at a different time, with the composer presumably having no notion of the vehicle Bissell was to design for it.
That’s not to say it doesn’t work. I’m a big fan of “Reading Ambiguity” from beginning to end, and I find Kevin’s interlude plays a key role in successfully catapulting the listener into the song’s fiery denouement. But the balance between the two Wrens leads has clearly changed here, and Charles’s vision has taken control in a way we haven’t previously heard. Even the contrast in the lyrics alone is striking, with Whelan’s sounding improvised and Bissell’s anything but.
If “Reading” is in fact the Wrens’ final statement, it may soon be eclipsed by whatever Whelan-excised version of the song appears on the Bissell solo album that’s certain to see an exponentially wider release. And so, we arrive back at the current moment, at Aeon Station.
According to Kevin’s Observatory press quotes, the primary motivation to release his songs now and under a new name is that he simply got tired of waiting on Charles. Anyone can sympathize with that – it’s been an incomprehensibly long time since the process of making the new Wrens LP began – but by this point, Charles had stated the work was complete. So why now, as discussions turned to the business of releasing the thing, did the final schism happen?
Of course there is plenty going on here that we as fans can’t know. Bissell is likely to share more about his side of the story as he prepares his solo launch, and I won’t be surprised if we’re told that Whelan only expressed discontent with his diminished voice in the final product during release discussions. By then he secretly had his own record’s worth of material, and maybe he had concluded he didn’t want fragments of his work embedded as interludes in someone else’s grand vision.
I have no clue what really went down and would never claim to, but I did have the privilege of listening to that 2016 version of the Wrens album, or at least a healthy chunk of it. And while I was floored by that entire experience and truly believe the record would have been a huge deal if it ever saw the light of day, my initial impression was also that Whelan’s contributions were relatively underwhelming in that specific context. Extrapolate the “Reading Ambiguity” dynamic across the whole LP, and you’ll have an idea what I mean.
With Observatory, we’re able to assess Kevin Whelan’s art on its own terms, and his decision to open with “Hold On” is as clear a statement of purpose as fans could ask for. Immediately, we’re confronted by those same piano arpeggios that fade in at the midpoint of “Reading Ambiguity,” but they sound much cleaner. Whelan’s voice enters, and though the melody is familiar the words have become more concrete and direct: “When all you know and believed to be true goes wrong / Hold on.”
Ripping his 90 seconds out of “Reading Ambiguity” and presenting them not only as a standalone song but as the introduction to Observatory is one hell of an aggressive move. It’s like if Paul had quit the Beatles during the recording sessions for Sgt. Pepper and rushed out a solo LP that opened with “Woke up, got out of bed.”
But aggressive is not a word that describes Observatory as a whole. Compared to his work in the Wrens, Whelan’s songwriting in Aeon Station resembles the more traditional indie rock sound of bands like Arcade Fire and The National (a comparison that Kevin may not love, but one he may need to get used to hearing). I think this actually makes a more favorable setting for some of the songs I recall hearing in 2016, like “Leaves.”
One of Observatory’s clear standouts, on this album “Leaves” is given the right amount of space to slowly build from a quiet piano-driven ballad to a soaring full-band arrangement complete with anthemic “whoooaaa”s (again, there really is a National-esque thing happening on a lot of this record).
With the huge caveat that I only heard “Leaves” once in the context of the Wrens record, and in a very different physical environment, and probably not in the intended track sequence, and also it was over five years ago – its impact there felt minimized by the sheer scale of Bissell’s songs both musically and thematically (I expect this will be easier to explain after we have Charles’s LP for active reference). Observatory presents none of those obstacles, as it’s really just ten very straightforward, well-crafted indie rock songs.
Mature is a loaded word to use when describing a rock album. Besides the obvious age implications, it’s usually meant to say that an artist has grown in terms of craftsmanship, but also that the rough edges that once made them interesting or unique have been sanded down. Mature is an appropriate word to use for Observatory, but it’s also probably the most authentic version of Kevin Whelan we could have hoped for in 2021. He’s in his 50s, he has a wife and kids and by all accounts a very successful business career. No one wants to hear him singing about poverty and ex-girlfriends now, right?
But if I’m honest, I miss the vigorous power pop of Secaucus, and the potent despair of The Meadowlands. More than anything I miss the interplay between Whelan’s blunt, heart-on-sleeve style and Bissell’s sonic introspection. Observatory is a good album, but it feels one-dimensional, and it was always doomed to be defined by what it’s missing. I’m happy to have it; it’s a rewarding listen; it’s not a masterpiece, and it’s not the Wrens.
Of course, we also don’t know what Charles’s solo album will feel like it’s missing. I have higher hopes for it, in part because of my memories from 2016 and in part because his Wrens songs always tended to be my favorites. But without Kevin’s presence, will this record sound too dense? Will the pacing feel wrong? And what goes in the middle of “Three Types of Reading Ambiguity”?
We should find out soon enough, and Charles has already stated that once his LP is out, he plans to make public the Wrens tracklist that could have been. A mix-and-match Spotify playlist will never be as satisfying as the real thing, but it’s something we can dream on.