Tristan Wraight sounds passionate — over the phone. He addresses his fractured band and sick father in expectedly somber tones. Yet his stated devotion to making “gorgeous, poignant music” comes off livelier than anything on his band Headlights’ latest release.
The music has transformed. The first two Headlights albums — full of sunny major chords that could soundtrack a hangout at Blue State or a low-key pregame — provide an incongruous preamble for the group’s haunting new sound. Airy harmonies and quivering reverb churn through Headlights’ third album, “Wildlife,” a lo-fi ode to lost innocence.
The Champaign, Ill. quartet has abandoned their dancey, up-tempo tendencies and traded in regulation indie pop for something hazier. While their sophomore release “Some Racing, Some Stopping” focused on retro hooks and catchy little tunes, this album features melodic lightness with more thematic weight. Its tracks spill tenuous echoes and self-consciously soft vocals that take listeners on an ethereal swim through the band’s collective memory.
“In the beginning, I think we were just about simple melody construction,” vocalist, guitarist and co-songwriter Wraight said. “[Now] we’re writing much bigger stuff.”
By bigger, he means sadder. The album’s melancholy is driven in part by the mid-recording departure of guitarist John Owens. And Wraight, ensnared by an all-too-common indie musician’s trap, mistakenly sought meaning and relevance in feelings of dejection when writing “Wildlife.”
“John’s a great friend and always will be,” Wraight explained. “But I think that when he quit, it was kind of a wake-up call; we just decided to start expressing something. And we ended up focusing some of our angst, to help clarify things, to keep going.”
But the personal struggles of Fein and fellow vocalist Wraight also affected the process. Wraight said that when Fein’s grandmother died and his own father was diagnosed with cancer, band morale plummeted.
“Life just got heavy, and we felt we had to put that into music,” Wraight said.
Perhaps the burden has yet to settle. Headlights seems to be arguing with itself, constantly re-synthesizing and fine-tuning its new brand of shoegaze.
The opening track “Telephones” twinkles in wide-eyed awe, creating anticipation of an album with spacious sound caverns and lashing guitar solos. But the next song, “Secrets,” floats away entirely, lifted into mere background noise by its repetitive drone, despite masterful auxiliary percussion.
“Get Going” offers welcome respite from excessive reverb, evoking an ’80s piano-rock cover of the Beach Boys with enough static to tie in to the rest of the disc. Yet even the “up-beat” tracks on this album are down. “Wildlife” begs for some of the spirited yet contemplative power pop of Headlights’ earlier releases, on which they expressed pure musical elation à la Architecture in Helsinki.
Admittedly, “Wisconsin Beaches” finally gets the lingering melody right — it’s a thinker’s anthem, a story well told by regretful guitars and half-naked vocals.
Headlights wrings sinewy beauty into boredom on ballads like “Slow Down Town,” which tastes something between subtly sweet and flavorless — the tapioca at the end of a bubble tea. Other songs oscillate from heart-wrenching to weary, back and forth, like some drawn-out ride on a rusty see-saw spanning Fein and Wraight’s minds.
“Wildlife” shows Headlights heading in a more pensive direction, but the band has fallen just short of its expressive potential. The album’s vulnerability is at once juvenile and mature, both a whimper and a confession of the fear that few musicians admit to feeling in the midst of a turbulent creative process.
Wraight described the album as “dealing with a late 20s feeling that you’re getting older, people you love are dying … a realization of naïve views.”
This vague concept is reflected in the sometimes beautiful, but more often nebulous album. The Headlights Web site still deems their music “indie rock for people who love pop.” Unfortunately for the band, these types of people can generally only stomach so many nostalgic, rainy-day refrains on loss and love.
One spin through “Wildlife” could induce profound, bottomless thoughts or unspeakable sadness, depending on the day and the weather. It’s mood music, splintering emotions veiled in thick feedback fog.
Headlights will be making a stop in New London, Conn. to play at The Oasis on Oct. 20.