The Wheel Workers, Citizens
Screw that whole “bands get quieter and more mellow as they get older” thing; who the hell wants that? The Wheel Workers, for one, sound like they’ve actually gotten louder and angrier as they’ve matured, band-wise, and I’m here to tell you that yes, that’s a very good thing.
See, back in 2013 the band released their stellar second album, Past to Present, which pretty much took any problems I might’ve had with the band’s earlier stuff and threw them, smiling, into a running garbage disposal. It was smart and sharp and subversively political, with the band sneakily wrapping their strident calls to action in a shiny, primary-colored pop coating. The songs were (and still are) addictive as hell, making you grin like an idiot as you sing along.
Flash forward to now, two years on, and the band’s back with Citizens, an album that’s less interested in sugar-coating its message and absolutely ready and willing to get up in your face. There’s a fire here, a belligerent swagger, particularly on tracks like lead single “Yodel,” a rollicking, meaty, surprisingly countrified chunk of roots-rock, with awesomely wavery, Western-sounding guitars and an organ that peeks in from behind the curtain and adds a nice, almost ’60 garage-rock tinge to things, like The Sonics doing a Hank Williams cover.
And over that rumbling, freight-train’s-a-comin’ sound, frontman Steven Higginbotham delivers a snarling, listen-up-kid roar warning the listener not to be fooled, that there’s no hell or heaven and that the system’s bought and sold by the people who’ve already got all the money. It’s a call for unity above all else, with Higginbotham yearning for alien invaders to attack the Earth so maybe (like always seems to happen in the movies, anyway) all us humans can start acting like the one race we are.
Now, with all that said, “Yodel” also happens to be a bit of a fake-out. A great fake-out, sure, but still. Because immediately after it ends, the band mostly ditches the guitars in favor of keyboards and synths, stepping sideways with “Burglar” into a retro-futuristic pop-rock world that owes equal amounts to Gary Numan, Devo, The Rentals, and the original Tron. The keyboards take up residence right up front in the band’s sound and don’t go away for the remainder of the album, and hey, I’m good with that.
The song, actually, is probably the least political of the bunch. “Burglar” is a love-gone-wrong song at its core, with Higginbotham wondering why things collapsed and becoming more and more bitter about the way things went as it rolls along, until he proclaims at the end, “But what you gave / when you were done / a selfish temper tantrum song / I hate your favorite band / they’re so fucking terrible.”
Changing gears a bit, “Whole Other World” is drifting and gentle, with a whole lot of different, gorgeously layered keyboards dancing in and around one another. Don’t be fooled by the shimmering exterior, though, because the lyrics are full of disgust about the state of the world as it is today, and the “whole other world” of the title is an alternate future Higginbotham and company are yearning for, even as they seem to acknowledge they’ll likely never get there.
I should note here that with some albums, you don’t bother to read the lyrics; they’re there, and they’re fine, but beyond that, why bother? There’s nothing really worth paying attention to. And then there’s The Wheel Workers. “Whole Other World” is no treatise, just a song, but it delivers a damning indictment of our modern national identity, pointing out that we bomb other nations to show them what “freedom” looks like and we plaster over the ugliness that underlies our society because we don’t want to be bothered by it. And again, this is all in a beautiful, seemingly fragile piece of sweeping, lush, slightly morose indie-pop.
Which brings us to “Smokescreen,” where Higginbotham sounds almost defeated by the furious, scorched-earth realm of political “debate” that makes up a large chunk of our media, both social and otherwise. I definitely get Higginbotham’s pain and confusion here — I’ve been intensely interested in politics for the bulk of my adult life, sometimes to the detriment of other parts of that life, but the older I get, the more I have to tune out the clamor.
I’ve had far, far too many of those moments where it just feels like the person on the other end of the argument has blinders on, and I’m sure they thought the same thing about me; a lot of the time these days, I have to just step away.
It’s no bad thing, obviously, that the song itself is wonderfully futuristic and murky at the same time, which is appropriate, given the song’s title and subject matter. And I love those keyboards, seriously — I haven’t heard anything quite like ’em since The Anniversary were still around, and The Wheel Workers put them to even better use here, to my ears.
Then there’s “Wage Slaves,” a shining, exploding highlight in an already-damn-good album. It’s a fist-in-the-air, absolutely resolute, political piece of electro-pop, like Gary Numan crossbred with Billy Bragg, where the band declares its solidarity with all us lowly wage-earning drones (yeah, I’m one myself; it’s true…). It’s sincere and thoughtful but uncompromising, demanding we all work together to fix the system, and it manages to be ridiculously catchy at the same time, demanding equally that you sing along and bob your head along.
“Run Away” takes a more personal turn, pointing backwards at a broken relationship in the same way that “Burglar” did, earlier on, but with more of an oblique, indirect manner. It starts off with an intriguing little bit of glitchy electronics that almost sounds like it belongs on a Massive Attack album, and the Workers sucker you into thinking you’re listening to another quiet, delicate song. By halfway through, though, it’s a heavy, thundering slab of alternarock awesomeness, with relentless, thick-sounding guitars and a Brit-rock vibe.
The last two tracks on Citizens are almost mirrors of one another, both in terms of sound and subject matter. There’s “Dream,” which is sweet, swirling-yet-driving rock that’s bright and defiant and intensely personal, a celebration of the too-brief life of Houston-based artist and friend of the band Cecelia Johnson, who suffered from Multiple Sclerosis until she passed away last fall at age 35. The song paints a vivid picture of a woman whose own body betrays and entraps her but who pushes past those limits and refuses to stop creating and dreaming. It’s inspiring and beautiful, a fitting testament.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, then, there’s “Citizen Incorporated,” which is raw and punkish, with a frenzied, hardcore-speed pace and a delivery and structure that seriously brings to mind Bad Religion’s classic “American Jesus”. Until the break, at least, and then Higginbotham and the band come off like vintage Pearl Jam, all swirling, echoey guitars, solid-and-steady tempos, and rough-edged, soaring vocals.
The song’s seemingly sung from the point of view of an actual corporation — classified nowadays as a citizen for the purposes of electoral finance law — the song takes none-too-subtle jabs at Fox News, religion-obsessed warmakers, rampant consumerism, Monsanto, and corporate tax shelters. Most politically-minded punk bands I’ve heard would spend an album’s worth of songs hitting all those marks; The Wheel Workers do it in just under four minutes.
And now that I’m thinking about it, “Citizen Incorporated” captures the true sense of Citizens as a whole. Past to Present was a pop album, no two ways about it; Citizens, on the other hand, is a punk album. It may have a whole lot of keyboards and relatively few guitars, it’s true, but it’s heir to the whole punk tradition of protest and change, fighting to change the system with music and words.
Citizens is The Wheel Workers’ punk manifesto, in all its synth-heavy, melodic glory, and it’s a thing of beauty to see and hear. Stand up and raise a fist in solidarity, y’all.