La Dispute’s ‘Wildlife’ turns 10 — a look back on the sprawling post-hardcore opus
Here’s a question: What do we mean when we say a given record is timeless? Is it simply a matter of longevity and staying power? Some fanciful combination of critical consensus, legacy and cultural influence? Is it a nostalgic thread sewn into the memory of the listener; one they dare not pull for fear of unravelling fragile ideas of the self? Maybe it’s all of these factors and more. Talk to a physicist and they’ll tell you that time, as we perceive it, doesn’t actually exist. Instead, it’s nothing but the cognitive smoke and mirrors of daily existence. To be timeless then is, philosophically speaking, rather unremarkable. So what are the qualities that classify an object—in this case, a mere assemblage of sounds and sensations—as inherently timeless? The term itself appears to be a paradox, as much about presence as it is about absence. Deep down, we know that something is there, in the thing itself, yet the answer remains elusive.
In 2011, I was 23, living on my own, recovering from the slow disintegration of my first serious relationship, and, perhaps most importantly, I was painfully late to the La Dispute party. By the time I had my mind blown by the heteroglossic post-hardcore on their debut album, 2008’s Somewhere At the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair, the band had already passed through my city on their first DIY Australian tour. Word of mouth spread quickly following that run of shows, helping to shape them into the stuff of local legend, punctuated by multiple reports of sweaty bodies rushing stages, frenzied performances and a pervasive sense of live-wire energy felt by crowd and crew alike. Nonetheless, I was hooked, and I wanted in.
I think it’s difficult to overstate just how crucial 2011 was for shaping and defining what the alternative music ecosystem would become throughout the 2010s. While online spaces certainly aren’t suffering from a lack of timely thinkpieces and retrospectives for this particular snapshot of history, even just a cursory look at releases from that year reveals a truly staggering body of work: Title Fight’s Shed, Pianos Become The Teeth’s The Lack Long After, Defeater’s Empty Days & Sleepless Nights, Balance and Composure’s Separation, The Wonder Years’ Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing, Touché Amoré’s Parting the Sea Between Brightness and Me, Joyce Manor’s self-titled album, and so on. Not to mention label mainstay Run For Cover Records’ Mixed Signals compilation, which featured select cuts from high-profile acts like Polar Bear Club, Daylight (later known as Superheaven), Make Do And Mend, TWIABP, and The Menzingers.
While by no means an inclusive catch-all phrase, the core bands of this period often referred to themselves (albeit jokingly) as “The Wave,” a half-serious shorthand for The New Wave of Post-Hardcore (TNOWPH). As Pitchfork contributor Ian Cohen writes in a 2014 feature on the movement, “TNWOPH is something of [an] inverse genre, a means of describing not so much what a band is, as what they aren’t, i.e., too studied and serious for punk, not melodic enough for pop-punk, not soft enough for emo, not prog enough to be metalcore.” And into this factional tumult of scene-adjacent ascendancy enters Wildlife, La Dispute’s sprawling, fourteen-track sophomore LP, released on October 4, 2011 through No Sleep Records.
I was completely entranced by Wildlife on my first listen, immediately engaged by the poetic flair and emotive mid-range cry of lead vocalist and lyricist Jordan Dreyer. Across four distinct movements, separated by “monologues” that served to delineate both theme and narrative, Wildlife played out as both an ambitious concept album and a self-assured refinement of the Grand Rapids quintet’s creative vision, fully realized by Dreyer, guitarists Chad Sterenburg and Kevin Whittemore, bassist Adam Vass, and drummer/percussionist Brad Vander Lugt.
On album opener “a Departure,” jangly guitar lines decorated by wistful chimes beckon the listener to come inside and take a journey. With warm, organic instrumentation kicking in to carry the tune, Dreyer’s narrator begins the account of a hypothetical author straining to articulate their search for purpose and meaning among feelings of desperation and isolation: “Not sure why I’m even writing this/ But I guess it feels right/ It sort of feels like I have to, like an exorcism.”
Across its near hour-long runtime, Wildlife’s carefully crafted meta-conceit—a story about the difficulty of storytelling—takes hold and refuses to let go. The listener bears witness from song to song, as the narrator struggles to wrench order from chaos amid the drudgery of small-town subsistence. Elements of mundane reality slowly begin to collapse and coalesce, blurring into a rich tapestry of textured urban fiction and stunning instrumental vistas, as each story is rendered in haunting detail through spoken-word aphorisms and Dreyer’s calculated scream-of-consciousness.
When I finally managed to see La Dispute live for the first time in early 2012, the show took place in The Zoo, a small, hot-house loft venue on the second floor of a shopping strip in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley district. It was cramped, humid and intimate—the perfect setting for five young men from Michigan to capture the attention of a few hundred strangers on the other side of the world. The feeling in the room was electric and borderline transcendent. Wildlife material dominated the setlist and at multiple points that evening, I was gripped by the profound sense of experiencing something singular and extraordinary: the delicate chord progressions and bluesy grooves of “Harder Harmonies” and “Edward Benz, 27 Times”; the pounding rhythms and churning catharsis of “The Most Beautiful Bitter Fruit” and “I See Everything”; the plaintive pleading of album closer “You and I in Unison."
One label that’s doggedly followed La Dispute throughout their career—and I would argue, unfairly so—is that of pretension. This idea that the band’s complex music palette, and more specifically Dreyer’s verbose inclinations and his breathless delivery of heady lyrical themes, is somehow all an act, merely an effort to appear "clever" and pull a fast one on the unsuspecting listener. This is why a critic like Anthony Fantano of The Needle Drop fame prefaces his incredibly positive review of Wildlife (which, at the time of writing this article, has racked up over 130,000 views and a mighty impressive like-to-dislike ratio) with his initial assessment of the band as being “annoying, overly dramatic, overly emotional, [and] whiny.” And sure, I’m happy to accede that La Dispute’s particular brand of TNOWPH isn’t for everyone. That’s fine and entirely valid. But also, more importantly, that’s kind of the point here, isn’t it?
Is it really possible for someone not already convinced by La Dispute’s musical intentions to listen to album centerpiece “King Park” and not be left utterly destroyed by it? I have my doubts. Rather than focusing on fictional constructions, the track’s real-life inspiration—the drive-by murder of a sixteen-year-old boy in Dreyer’s Grand Rapids neighborhood and the subsequent police stand-off and suicide of the involved shooting suspect—adds a harrowing dimension of arrested intensity to Wildlife’s seven-minute opus.
As the track’s rhythmic flow winds through compositional changes, anchored by delicate guitar lines and soft accents of guiro and triangle, Dreyer imagines himself as a disembodied spectre, taking in traumatic events in real-time: “I disintegrate, become invisible/ I wanna see it where I couldn’t, when it happened/ I wanna see it all firsthand this time/ I want to know what it felt like.” A towering crescendo follows the ratcheted tension of the song’s second verse before a sparse and mournful mid-section opens up like a gaping chasm, filled with foreign grief and an aching lead riff.
Racing towards an inexorable end and explosive instrumental climax, “King Park” ends with one of La Dispute’s most tortured and iconic lines, landing with all the weight of an existential gut-punch: “Can I still get into heaven if I kill myself?” Read the comments of that very same Needle Drop review and this moment recurs as a crucial inflection point for La Dispute converts, leaving one listener “genuinely breathless” and another describing it as “one of the most intense moments in music” they’ve ever heard. Pretentious or otherwise, it’s hard to deny the track’s emotional impact and continued relevance in the face of a culture gripped with endemic rates of gun violence and youth suicide.
In a 2010 interview prior to the album’s release, Dreyer was asked about the apparent strangeness of the band’s diverse grab-bag of sounds, responding: “We don’t sit around trying to think of what genre we play, or what niche we fall into, we just enjoy writing and playing the music that we do. [...] Anyone else’s description is as good as one we’d be able to come up with.” And, truthfully, perhaps more than any entry in their discography, I feel that Wildlife best exemplifies this “amalgamation of sorts,” with La Dispute pulling liberally from the annals of post-hardcore, screamo, folk and post-rock to craft something idiosyncratic, holistic and powerfully earnest.
Despite the record existing as an artifact of a genre movement and musical era forever lodged in the amber of history, its musical content and emotive power resists stasis and fixation. Dreyer’s talent as a formidable lyricist and frontman to, in Cohen’s words, put “you in a position of having to empathize and relate to people who don’t exist” means that Wildlife continues to resonate with new audiences a decade after release. As Andrew wrote earlier in the year for ‘In Defense of the Genre,’ what ultimately made the album one of TNWOPH’s defining “heavy hitters” is “the sound of La Dispute throwing shit at a wall to see what sticks, and everything sticking.” And I think it’s that stickiness, that stubborn persistence, that gnawing sense of object permanence and warm familiarity, that synaptic ‘like new again’ spark igniting with every listen, that makes a record like Wildlife truly timeless.