In its music video for its standout single “No Woman,” one gets a sense of how tightly packed and meticulously formed the entirety of Whitney’s Light Upon the Lake really is. It’s a simple premise, to be sure. Some buddies, members of the band, hang out in a forest, kicking back with some PBR, taking turns throwing a hatchet at a tree, and going for nature walks along a lake and through some pastures. The lead singer reflects on the stillness after the storm that was a meaningful break up, singing, “I left drinking on the city train / To spend some time on the road / Then one morning I woke up in L.A. / Caught my breath on the coast.”
While more than a few bands have a lot of musicians, Whitney notably has 11 people working on Light Upon the Lake. The band was formed by the former drummer and guitarists of Smith Westerns, Julien Ehrich and Max Kakacek, respectively. The two teamed up with several members of Unknown Mortal Orchestra to perform alongside many of their musician friends throughout 2015. The collaborative nature of the album is most present in the tightly phrased and crafted lyrics that are attributed to many of the members on each track. Whitney released its first single, “No Woman,” in Jan. 2016, and Light Upon the Lake came out this past summer.
In its debut album, Whitney is focusing on the wake of a relationship ended—what’s left, what has changed, and what will be. In a few songs and in such a short time span (the album is a half-hour), Whitney delivers listeners a transcendent feeling of camaraderie and comfort, as it shares with them the feelings the band members have felt after losing real love. The album successfully travels the spectrum of emotions that can be found in such a trying and confusing time, while also harping on the fact that significant and worthwhile memories can still be harvested from a love ended.
The heartache of the breakup process is best conveyed through “Red Moon,” “Golden Days,” and, to a degree, “No Woman.” Especially in “Red Moon,” the one instrumental song on the album, one feels a certain rawness or certain dull throbbing in the tune’s soulful trumpet overlay. The bass and keyboard effects, echoing the same notes as the trumpet in the latter half of the song, sound as if they’re trying to cope with or soothe the sharpness and almost haunting tone of the trumpet. The guitar solo in “Golden Days,” the certified goosebump-inducing string of the album, mimics the moment one realizes that his relationship should or must end.
The heart and soul of the album, “No Woman” is the microcosm of the whole breakup process. It notably bridges the gap between the two phases of any breakup: letting go and moving on. Encapsulating both hope and despair, with its guttural acoustic foundation and airy, uplifting horn section toward the end, this is Whitney’s masterpiece—the song the crowds at its concerts will be pining to hear.
Songs like the album’s titular “Light Upon the Lake,” “The Falls,” and “Follow” harp more on the process of moving on. “Follow” notes that the sadness in leaving a love is painful, but that, hopefully, it only lasts for so long. “Light Upon the Lake” shows the singer realizing that he cannot be swept up in his wallowing and that he must avoid being consumed by his despair, as he sings, “Fire across the plains / Light upon the lake / Lonely haze of dawn / When old days are gone / Will life get ahead of me?” In “The Falls,” the singer expresses his wish that he can keep his head up despite his sadness and his hope that he can move on, even if he doesn’t know what direction he is going.
Whitney’s Light Upon the Lake is not the best album of all time, but it is the best album of 2016, so far. For a concept album, especially one focused on a breakup, it does a beautiful job of exploring the whole range of emotions involved the process, as well as avoiding some of cliche tropes of the genre. While it will be interesting to see how Whitney defines itself throughout the course of its career, it has instantly made a name for itself with this knockout album.
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