With the rich foliage sheathing New England in crimson and gold, there must come a soundtrack to match.
In the season named for change — the fall of leaves, the surge of crops, the gradual recession from patios and parks to living rooms and libraries — one album weathers the transition: “Light Upon the Lake.” It’s the debut record of Whitney, a Chicago-based indie-rock group founded in 2016.
Over 30 minutes of soul-infused rock, the album explores a psychic disorientation so debilitating as to demand physical flight. What results is a sojourn through space that manages to begin exactly where it ends: mid-route (“I left drinking on the city train / To spend some time on the road”). The destination is anywhere-but-here, the journey an indefinite drift from the rubble of a failed relationship and the woman at its center.
Heartbroken, the album’s protagonist flees in desperate attempt to outrun his encroaching shadow. Moving on requires moving along. “Searching for those golden days,” the refugee of domestic strife seeks a physical separation commensurate with a growing emotional gulf.
Displacement, though, proves unsustainable — shadows outrun their subjects (“Will life get ahead of me?”). The waters of independence prove too treacherous for the singer to wade without a mate, without an anchor to offer stability against anxiety.
Like the dawning autumn, “Light Upon the Lake” evolves in the present tense. “I’ve been going through a change,” wails the singer-drummer Julien Ehrlich. “I might never be sure / I’m just walking in a haze.” Each track is a real-time whirligig of movement whereby nothing sits still: not the inner-mind (“I took too much to slow down / These days and nights I can’t be found”), not the subject in space (“I can’t sleep alone when you’re on my mind”), and not the outside world (“Cause now I’m not too sure I know / Which way the rising river flows”).
As fall temperatures fluctuate, so too the record cools as it unfolds. The fire that blazed down the open road has, by the closing track, tempered to a simmer. In “Follow,” the protagonist accepts that his path may well be wide enough for two — and his partner may chart the route (“When it’s coming to an end / It’s like you’re runnin’ home again / And I’ll follow you”). At last, loneliness confronts companionship.
For an album about breakup, “Light Upon the Lake” comes to terms with the hard realization that every ending is also a beginning, every bookend in fact the middle of some larger tome. Time is decisively non-linear, amorphous, and unflinching. Just as a wayward traveler can wander from waterfall to campfire to desert to coast in the window of daylight hours, the mood of the album swings with the same wild temperament from devotion to disdain on the whim of each track.
As a body, “Light Upon the Lake” eludes capture. It’s a work located in the midnight haze of a long-neglected woods — distinctly, perplexedly, frustratingly hard to place.
And it echoes quite familiarly at Yale, a worldly crossroads where presence and transience converge in a spectacle spangled grey.
Gated castles force the cosmopolitan inhabitants of Yale — a university named for a continent-hopping globetrotter — to reckon with immobility. The burden doubles in autumn, when the unique seasonal variance clashes with students seeking order in daily schedules and long-pressed behaviors. How, this autumn, every fall, are we to make peace with a dynamic outside world that refuses to pause for, let alone fit into, our conscribed everyday routines? How are we not to feel trapped when our lives seldom leave the boundaries of a single zip code, a well-bounded neighborhood, a one-stop gothic oasis, a lone college courtyard?
Whitney negotiates an emotional space defined by its ostensible lack of boundaries. Yale’s boundaries are more immediately apparent. Like dressing for an in-between fall afternoon, or toeing the line between friendship and something more, or untangling the knottiness of life as a hopelessly mixed-up young adult, campus exists in a liminality so common as to be forgotten.
“Light Upon the Lake” mocks solid borders only to find out that such borders crop up anyway, with or without consent. Making peace means recognizing their durability and, in turn, taking an active role in shaping them. It’s a tough and sweaty act that, at bottom, requires presence — simply being there with skin in the game.
Because, in the hard-to-probe and half-lit corners, there’s poetry. It’s the moonlight that strikes a silent chord atop the push and pull of lake water. It’s a fall tableau ready to unfurl.