The genre-bending folk sounds of Aaron Wardwell’s King Leisure deliver social criticism with a searching, spiritual sincerity.

Earlier this year, David Berman passed away. Berman was best known as the leader of the indie rock band Silver Jews, but really, he was a true individual: a poet and a traveler, a voice of grit and conscience, limping toward authenticity. To his fans and the world, Berman is irreplaceable. But like anyone affected by loss, I have found myself chasing echoes of Berman’s voice, no matter how pale or thin.

Boston singer-songwriter Aaron Wardwell is among the newer and stronger of these echoes. On his soulful yet neurotic debut album, King Leisure, Wardwell chases sparks of meaning through the daily details of a hollow and mass-media-driven youth culture. With poetic lyrics and a sound reminiscent of the Microphones or the National, King Leisure places Wardwell in the tradition of musicians like Berman who wander the world, big-eyed, wondering, yet forever apart. 

In a promo video for the album, Wardwell issues a series of refusals: “I don’t want to chill, (…) I don’t want to party, (…) I don’t want to network, (…) I don’t want to make money.” Then, as the loopy sounds of the album’s third track, “Down Along the Park,” come in, he ends on a simple declaration: “I just want to make music, that’s all.” This rejection of the modern routine runs through King Leisure. On the album’s hypnotic opener, “They Once Called Me King Leisure,” Warwell sings, “Making cash and getting ass / And dinner, lunch, and breakfast / I’m overwhelmed by these tasks.” And on “Life Off The Grid,” Wardwell recounts a tongue-in-cheek fantasy about moving to the wilderness and getting a “kickass tan.” Wardwell’s posture is jaded, but it is not misanthropic. Even his darkest social commentaries float on a bed of glittering synths and guitars, elevating them from complaints to something more innocent and appealing, even holy.

This spiritual tone is no accident. King Leisure is an album deeply concerned with religion, or at least the search for it. Most of its tracks feature a church-like organ, and on the opener, Wardwell sings about “all nighters in the Church.” But Wardwell’s relationship with spirituality is complex. He does not fail to turn his skeptical gaze towards religious dogma, diluting it with a global mix of sounds and philosophies. Alongside the organs, many tracks feature meditative droning sounds and sitar-like licks—sonic motifs that often mark Western artists influenced by Eastern religion. Wardwell also gestures towards the idea of eternal return, repeatedly singing “it’s a cycle” on “Something Different” and structuring many of his tracks, such as “Molly,” “Natalie Would You,” and “Who’s Bob Saget,” around vocal loops that spiral through the listener’s head, picking up new meaning with each iteration. 

Though King Leisure is full of these thought-provoking touches, not all of its tracks are equally innovative. “June, Yer High” and “Stringing me Along,” in particular, fail to stand out from indie music’s ample supply of songs about struggling with love. But on King Leisure’s strongest tracks, such as “Who’s Bob Saget,” “Something Different,” and “Down Along the Park,” Wardwell distinguishes himself as a writer and musician, pairing keen cultural criticism with an earnest search for spiritual fulfillment. And throughout the album, he accomplishes what many consider the artist’s hardest task—he proves himself strange in the best way, a true individual with a unique lens on the world.

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