One of the things that I love most about music is how it refuses to be a static art form. Musicians and songwriters are never satisfied with complacency in musical development. Instead, they are endlessly pushing the envelope of music—how it’s made, what it sounds like, where it goes. Yet, even with this constant sense of boundary pushing, oftentimes music that combines elements of the past with those of the present and future are just as effective and stirring. At heart, this is exactly what subgenres like synthpop and psychedelic pop seek to do: synthesize a warped futuristic sonic vision within the framework of the successful popular music template.
Wolf Circus, the Californian indie pop/psychedelic pop group led by songwriter Lesley Price, puts on a workshop in retro pop experimentation with their third studio album that dropped just last week. The titular track of the record, “Telephone Dreams,” is a breezy song, the type of track that hooks you from the first sunny synth riff.
“I’m spending some time on home screen / Don’t know where to go and I don’t care,” Price sings after a lengthy synth intro. The techno, futuristic embellishments of the track perfectly match the lyrical content and choppy, abrupt delivery. “I’m floating away now on cloud nine / Where everything’s fine.” Layered in a swirl of dreamy textures and enhanced by the insistent drumbeats, “Telephone Dreams” pays homage to The Beach Boys just as much as it does to Depeche Mode. The blending of genres put on display here is a testament both to Price’s technical skills and awareness of sound. When Price croons in the chorus, drawing out the last syllable in “dreams,” it draws a sharp contrast to the nippy synth pulses that almost act as sound effects in a video game.
Despite the sunny disposition of the song, by the second verse you’re left wondering if the indelibly peppy hooks are masking an impulse of cynicism. It’s a rather subtle distinction, but when Price sings the verse, “I’m taking a break from my real life / And taking the time to go sightseeing / I’m floating away now on cloud nine / Where everything’s fine,” you can’t help but ask yourself: Are you saying everything’s fine as an assertion or a distraction? It’s not a question that is answered per se, although this is something I doubt Wolf Circus set out to do anyways. In an era where technology can feel overwhelming, even foreboding, how do we reconcile desire for progress with our innate feelings of insecurity? When the song comes to a close and the outro—a short clip of something that sounds like elevator music—plays, it’s almost as if we’re being transported back to reality. Phone in hand, headphones plugged in, it can feel a little disconcerting, but there is an undeniable beauty in this discomfort. And isn’t that where art thrives?
Wolf Circus’s “Telephone Dreams” is a seriously fresh take on synthpop. Some parts retro, some parts futuristic, it’s really above all a fun track that catches your ear from the jump. Check out the album now, which just dropped on January 5th.