As backstories go, the one behind Aeon Station is a messy one. You can add ‘frustrating’ and perhaps even ‘tragic’ to that list too, with Kevin Whelan’s new project having emerged from the fragmenting of a friendship spanning three decades, not to mention the slow demise of beloved New Jersey band The Wrens. Nonetheless, it’s also a story that culminates in ‘Observatory’, already referred to as ‘the greatest indie rock record of 2021’ - and with good cause.
Built around the songwriting talents of bassist Whelan and guitarist Charles Bissell, The Wrens fought in the indie wars of the ‘90s before eventually taking on day jobs, eventually re-emerging dazedly with their magnum opus ‘The Meadowlands’ in 2003. It built them a deserved fanbase - but with the band on the cusp of middle age, life was already beginning to get in the way, and a long-promised follow-up ultimately failed to see the light of day.
The reasons for this are unclear - the two longtime friends at the band’s core are not currently on speaking terms, and have offered contradictory accounts. Ultimately, it seems Whelan lost patience with the delays, however, and reclaimed his songwriting contributions to make ‘Observatory’. Supplementing those cuts with brand new ones, the results are as close as we’ve gotten to a fourth Wrens record, although even with fellow alumni Greg Whelan (his guitarist brother) and Jerry McDonald (drums) on board, this is most assuredly not The Wrens. Aeon Station is very much Whelan’s own beast.
Some of these songs date back to 2007, while others were written in the ensuing years, but the whole thing feels cohesive. The lyric sheet sees 51-year-old Whelan exploring a series of connections - with his own sense of purpose, with his erstwhile bandmates, with his late father and his neurodivergent son. There are ruminations on missed chances (“Everyone regrets the things they never find the way to say,” he sings on ‘Everything At Once’) that feel both uniquely specific and yet broadly relatable - a surefire mark of a smartly empathetic writer.
The soaring ‘Queens’ finds him asking: “When did all those ends begin? / It still feels like it always did,” and you may initially wonder whether he’s directly addressing the schism with Bissell, until you learn that this was originally demoed for The Wrens. Before long, he’s wearily repairing battered hearts as he tells us: “You can’t always lose, it’s time to win” - a call to arms as euphoric as Bruce Springsteen’s similar moment of self-empowerment on ‘Thunder Road’.
Sonically, it’s clearly cut from the same cloth as The Wrens - pianos ripple and power chords chug with the same balance of intimacy, heart-on-sleeve emotion and melodic concision that made ‘The Meadowlands’ so well-loved. You’re reminded of just how closely Arcade Fire were listening, as songs erupt into strident, tastefully ornate passages and chorused harmonies that feel bold without being bombastic, while Whelan’s voice leaps effortlessly from hushed soul-searching to belting out key lines in a manner that feels like he’s addressing you directly. And the tunes? Oh, they’re something else. Barely five minutes of the album have elapsed before you realise your heartstrings are in for a furious tug-of-war, but the effects are addictive; even at their most sombre, these songs are stirring rather than simply morose - just like the ones that made his name.
Let’s step back a second, though. As hard as it may seem to divorce ‘Observatory’ from its context, it’s very much a record that stands on its own two feet. These are excellent songs. Not only that, but given the isolation and anxieties of life in 2021, it’s easy to find commonality in these tales of hope and strength amid troubling uncertainty. As Whelan sagely advises: “The weight of life can pull you under / But have faith, get up, don’t fall apart.” It remains to be seen whether The Wrens can put aside their differences; in the meantime, a ludicrously talented artist is back and working at the top of his game once more. Cherish this record.
Words: Will Fitzpatrick
- - -
- - -