Wild Nothing and HOLYCHILD Use 80s Pop to Hide Dark Stories

On Wild Nothing's "Partners in Motion" and HOLYCHILD's "Wishing You Away," the bombast of synths and big choruses obscure menace.

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19 July 2018, 12:09am

HOLYCHILD (L) photo via PR; Wild Nothing (Photo by Cara Robbins via PR)

When Jack Tatum was 21 and still at uni, he recorded a bunch of lo-fi, slightly scruffy dream pop demos in his dorm room. Unlike that guy who lived in your halls and insisted that open mic nights and his loop pedal would be his ticket out of macro-economics lectures, Tatum’s tracks soon led to a full-time career. Indie label Captured Tracks stumbled across his music online, and soon Tatum became Wild Nothing, while those songs became his debut 2010 album, Gemini. “I didn’t even really think about the impact that that album could have,” he told Stereogum in 2012, “I didn’t think about who was going to be hearing it; I didn’t think about anything like that.”

And you can hear that, in how songs like “Drifter” and “O Lilac” come across almost as sketches rather than full-blown tracks. In that same interview, Tatum seemed to agree: “There are very few songs on that album that I took more than a few days on or that I would start working on and later come back to. For the most part they were all just done in one chunk of time.” As a result, they really *are* sketches. In particular, ones that weren’t recorded with a wide audience in mind, let alone ambitions of becoming a full-time musician. "I listen to that record and am like 'oh, this is kind of a mess'," he continued. "I don’t know why people liked it. But that’s part of its charm."

Eight years later, Tatum is due to return in August with Indigo, Wild Nothing’s fourth album. And thankfully, he’s sounding tighter than ever, on both lead single “Letting Go” and new one “Partners in Motion.“ “Partners” is proper 80s pastiche, but executed with enough commitment to make it sound less like a cheap imitation and more like a warm bath that leaves you sepia-toned in VHS fuzz and somehow suddenly wearing fuchsia blush with a headband on. The rounded jangle of Wild Nothing’s guitars have for years attached the band to the swell of early 2010s chillwave – Neon Indian, Toro Y Moi and the like. That 'sunny' sound, paired with lyrics as morose as those on “Partners,” makes Tatum’s songwriting reminiscent of Scandipop bittersweet longing. And along with duo HOLYCHILD's brand-new "Wishing You Away" video, "Partners in Motion" shows just how much – and how subtly – a summery-sounding track can conceal darkness in its folds.

Within the first few lines, “Partners” sets a scene. You’re in a cafe, watching a happy couple. Over synths, a ticking and popping drum machine and those signature strummed guitars, Tatum sings: “I caught you in the Dollhouse / drinking coffee with your new wife / How is your new life? / Swiping through headlines / How do you find the time? / You two look very nice.” If you were one of the people in that couple, this would be great! A cute day, maybe a Saturday morning, sipping a couple of flat whites and reading the paper while your partner absentmindedly scrolls on their smartphone. Dreamy!

But the song’s narrator coats their words in what could either be sarcasm – “you two look very nice”, delivered with an eye roll – or voyeuristic obsession. As the song progresses, it starts to sound like the latter. Allusions are made to “watching through keyholes” and once having a temper that is, for now, under control. Those moments all read like delicate threats, but you’d easily miss them if you were only bopping to the song’s lolling retro beat and cranking up the sound of its trebly guitars.

Similarly, LA duo HOLYCHILD toy with the artifice of 80s visual aesthetics, a horrifyingly sad lyrical theme and a huge pop sound in their new video for single “Wishing You Away.” The song makes nods to the 80s in its production, though not as explicitly as “Partners in Motion.” Instead, frontperson and songwriter Liz Nistico places deeply personal lyrics about domestic abuse flush next to a high-octane guitar line that shrieks like a drill, booming synth pads and a sing-song chorus that could easily belie the pain behind her words. The video flicks between scenes of pastel-toned domesticity and aerobic choreography, to ones suddenly jarred by the bloom of a bruise around Nistico's eye, or blood-like liquid pooling near her head.

Nistico uses the song to work through her past, as a child who witnessed her mother survive being abused by her father. “This song is about everything I was too scared to say in the past,” she said in a statement. “While the song focuses on my childhood and my past, in the video I am fearing the repercussions that may come. Am I destined to be in an abusive relationship because I grew up without a healthy example of ‘love?’ Will I know what love is therefore? Will I be able to break the cycle of abuse, or is that my inevitable journey?" It’s an odd and affecting sensation, finding yourself singing along cheerily to a song that lays bare a story shrouded in shame, self-loathing and trauma. But that’s what gives this song in particular, and sweet-sour pop more broadly, its potency.

Both HOLYCHILD and Wild Nothing’s songs are soaked in a pop syrup that I can practically feel rotting my molars. They each wield melody like a hammer to the head, making it clear that these songs aren’t about noodling around in a 7/4 time signature, but are all about the clarity of tone that the best pop so often creates. It becomes almost like a blank canvas, where what you paint on it can ahdere to the sound you’ve built – something! Upbeat! About nice thigns! – or go the other way, and pull the rug from our beneath the listener. I know unabashed pop isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but can’t help being drawn in when it’s written like this. As summer wafts into the haze of a continuing heatwave, I'm comforted knowing I'll be able to return to these tracks when they feel less "seasonal." Just my luck that Tatum didn't sack off his songwriting and pick up a book instead, isn't it?

The UK’s 24-hour domestic violence helpline, run by Women’s Aid and Refuge, can be reached for free at 0808 2000 247. Click here for services for male survivors in particular. In the US, the National Domestic Abuse hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-7233. If you're in immediate danger, please always call your country's emergency police number.

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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.