Archer Prewitt sounds like a citizen of heaven: He inhabits a world of sickly sweet tenors, a palace of acoustic chords so clean that mothers the world over lay their old Simon and Garfunkel records at his feet. He makes indie rockers forget recent flings with soft-folkers like Devendra Banhart and Sufjan Stevens. He lives in a place where a chorus like “We can go by the way of the sun” sound like the most innocent kind of come on, one not of deviant sexual desire but of nearly infinite possibility and immediate calm.
Prewitt inhabits this marvelous construct for the whole of “Way of the Sun,” the opener on his fourth studio album, Wilderness. In fact, Prewitt (a veteran of Chicago’s post-everything popsters The Sea and Cake) approximates the subtle folk genius of that song on almost every track on Wilderness. The album is so self-assured in sound and intent that it easily dismisses any of the easy-listening, mom-and-pop rock criticisms that will undoubtedly be levelled against it.
Prewitt sings with a soothing voice and smooth delivery that seems to buff the jagged edges from his off-kilter compositions. But repeated listens reveal the depth and complexity of Prewitt’s arrangements, as well as the intensity of emotion behind his buttery voice. “O, KY” sounds like an innocuous ’70s AM radio pop tune, but the song builds to a stirring climax that might’ve bordered on cacophony in a rougher man’s hands. Prewitt’s great talent is subtly integrating challenging textures and structures into easily likeable pop tracks.
Few could steer the curves of the elegiac “Without You” with Prewitt’s signature grace. A lilting pedal steel drips as the songs opens, and lazy acoustic strumming brings up the rear. Time-tested countryisms like “I used to think that I was strong / But now I believe that I’m barely making it” sound fresh in Prewitt’s writing. By the time the song morphs into a poppy, McCartneyesque bounce, his talent is no longer in question.
“Leaders” follows a more straightforward path, as Prewitt chimes in brilliantly from some other, better planet, “Say hello to your leaders.” A flowing, finger-picked acoustic guitar steadies the mix until an organ props up the chorus. Prewitt convincingly sighs, “Nothing seems to be so far from the truth and the natural laws.”
Ultimately, only real flaw on Wilderness lies in one of its strengths. Prewitt’s silvery voice lends the album enviable clarity and unity, but also a frustrating consistency. No matter how varied the arrangements or song structures, Prewitt’s pipes, finally strong enough to be the focus of his work, are the sonic element that most apparently binds these tracks together.
Desptie this trivial fault, Wilderness is a magnetic album, its simple beauty disarming, its hard-won complexity mystifying. Prewitt may not physically inhabit a different plane than the rest of us, but parts of Wilderness make the notion seem plausible.
Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars