The title of David Wax Museum’s fifth album, Guesthouse, is fitting for a grass-roots band that depends on the kindness of strangers as it tours the continent in its van and finances its albums through crowdfunding sites. The core of the group, lead man and lyricist David Wax and vocalist/roots instrumentalist Suz Slezak, are now married with child. (Slezak also released a solo record of lullabies, Watching the Nighttime Come, earlier this year.) If Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love stands as his “marital” record, on which he confronted his doubts and anxieties about grown-up life, DWM’s new release is the band’s first “parental” record. “Everything changes when two become three,” they sing on one track. Guesthouse, very subtly, seems to be a concept record about anxiety, though not simply the anxiety of parenthood. Themes of the passage of time and the insecurity of one’s place in the world run throughout much of the album. It’s a compelling chapter in the life of a band known for its irresistibly joyful live shows.
In “Young Man,” Wax plays out a dialogue in which he seems to be talking to himself: “The ambitious man said to the young man/Though he knew it was useless to preach/You’re dying for what’s next/But aren’t you where you always wanted to be.” In the one-line chorus, he allows “I am that young man.” The characters on the record rarely take a sure-footed step. In the opening track, “Every Time Katie,” the singer feels “the cold slithering worm of doubt.” Midway through the record, on “Don’t Lose Heart,” he steels himself against doubt that feels confessional: “Different bed every night/Underfed we survive…We’re barely afloat/I should care but I don’t.” It’s a self-assured stance that nevertheless surrenders to an earnest plea in the closing lines: “The thing may now be to quit/But that’s not something I’m willing to admit…Don’t lose heart/This is the hardest part.”
Under the production of Josh Kaufman (Bob Weir, The National, Josh Ritter, Craig Finn) and with the help of a versatile backing ensemble including Jordan Wax, Greg Glassman, and Philip Mayer, the band continues to push its eclectic sound in new directions, and the album ranges from the minimalism of the three-line song “Time Will Not Track Us Down”—there’s that battle with time again—to the richly layered title track. “Guesthouse” feels like the fruition of the band’s musical journey to date, a fun and complex arrangement flavored by traditional melodies from south of the border, a calling card for a band and its “Mexo-Americana” brand of field recording-inspired folk rock. Wax slips Paul Simon-like into the song with sly syncopation, asking for a place to stay: “Hope it’s not an imposition…I’m in a time of transition.” The singer confesses of a scoped-out abode: “I google-mapped it, there I said it/The street where I might live on/The corner store is ayurvedic/Just past the dog salon.”
Wax has always been a gifted lyricist, and that’s on display here. One might even hear Tom Waits spinning the following sequence in “Lose Touch with the World”: “My life’s a film but I haven’t seen it/There are screens behind these screens/Where the world’s as flat as a magazine/And everyone kisses like they’re seventeen.” In the aforementioned “Everything Changes,” you pause to reflect on the observation “The freedoms we glorify/The same ones that paralyze/May our path not be too wide.”
I came to this record as a new parent myself, and its ruminations on roofs, romance, and the road speak to the mystery ride of life and the burdens we carry willingly along the way.