One of the most astonishing records of 2019 has slipped under many radars, likely because it’s hard to describe, categorize, and explain. Seven years in the making, the composer William Brittelle’s Spiritual America was co-released in May by the venerable Nonesuch Records and New Amsterdam, the new-music label that Brittelle cofounded. It features dozens of musicians, including the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, New York’s protean Metropolis Ensemble, and Durham’s Wye Oak.

Spiritual America is a classical record to the extent that it has sophisticated string and choral writing, but it blows away preconceived notions with “Abattoir.” As a pitched-down voice choppily intones the ominous title, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner sings, “I don’t know what you mean / When you say you’ll never die,” her voice sailing like the shadow of a cloud over a landscape of dreamlike vividness where swashbuckling classical strings and liquid hair-metal guitar solos somehow fuse into glossy unity. Though the album’s musical forms remain dizzyingly malleable—interweaving classical and pop, iPhone samples and professional recordings—its hallucinatory clarity is unwavering.

Spiritual America isn’t just an album I liked right away. There was something in it I intuitively recognized. The paradoxes and mysteries polished into its surface seemed to hint at deeper ones buried within, which were somehow intimately tangled in my own emotional experience. Why did this music feel at once so human and so virtual? How could it be both so emotive and so remote? How the hell did Wye Oak end up amid all these world-class classical musicians?

And, most of all, how to reconcile the whiff of disdain around the elevator-pitch version of its concept—Buddhist New York composer reckons with religious upbringing in rural North Carolina—with the music I heard, which felt inexplicably but stubbornly like being in a carnival as a child, more lost paradise than escaped damnation? To find out, I started right here at home, with Wye Oak.

Plates keep appearing at the Durham Hotel table where Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack are meeting for lunch. As Wye Oak, they’re one of Durham’s most nationally popular bands, though they’re still heavily associated with Baltimore. Still, now that Wasner has lived in Durham for about five years and Stack for going on two, we claim them.

Wye Oak spent years building its fan base as a dream-poppy indie rock duo before emerging, with seeming suddenness, into a sound all their own on 2018’s majestic electro-rock opus, The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs. “My Signal” features cellist Paul Wiancko and violinist Michi Wiancko, whom Wye Oak never would have met if not for performing with Brittelle. This was but one way that the collaboration opened new worlds to an ambitious band with the chops to hold their own beyond the nightclubs.

“Bill basically cold-called us while we were in New York in 2013, recording Shriek,” Wasner says. “I think he heard something in our music that made him suspect we’d be down and capable. His whole deal is bringing together classical music and pop music in a way that doesn’t suck. We’ve always been inclined to challenge ourselves, and we’d just come off two years of playing the same songs, from Civilian. Things were going well for us, but creatively, things felt pretty stagnant.” 

Wye Oak began performing with symphonies and chamber ensembles around the country. Each evening featured a half-set of Brittelle’s songs and another of his arrangements of songs from Shriek, one of which serves as a postlude on Spiritual America.

“The biggest thing I took away was that there’s this block in my brain that I’m not a real musician and these ensembles of some of the best classical musicians in the world are going to show me up,” Wasner says. “I work in a totally different way. I’m relatively self-taught. I play by ear and don’t use sheet music. But they’re as amazed by that as I am about what they can do. They’re like, ‘Wow, you just think of something and play it?’”

“These opposing ways of making music complement each other,” Stack adds. “Then we can dip into that aesthetic on our record in a way we would have been afraid to do.”

By the time Spiritual America’s recording began, Brittelle and Wye Oak had built up a great deal of trust. Wasner’s imprint is overt, as her voice suffuses the record. Stack’s is more circumspect, as he played drums and electronics and helped mix—no small role, in a project stitching together so many musicians working independently. Proceeding from Brittelle’s MIDI demos, Wye Oak tracked all their parts at home.

“Bill’s very open with the liberties he allows you to take,” Wasner says. “He wrote the words and melodies, but he always said, ‘Take this and make it sound natural and make it work.’” The record’s patchwork method accounts for its uncanny hermetic quality, which couldn’t be achieved with a lot of live room tone; part of the magic is the sense of isolated things melting together in an imaginary space.

“It really is unlike any other music I’ve ever heard,” Stack says. “There’s elements that are so intimate and closed off, and if you record a hundred-piece group, you’re never going to get that.”

The concert premiere of Spiritual America took place in New York in February, with some ninety musicians on stage, followed by a West Coast premiere at The Hollywood Bowl with Bon Iver, whose Wisconsin studio, April Base, served as the album’s mixing headquarters. Meanwhile, Wye Oak embarked on its own journey with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, premiering a piece the group commissioned in New York in March. 

In a way, Spiritual America is the meeting of a composer who left rural North Carolina years ago and a band who moved to urban North Carolina more recently, and who didn’t find it difficult to locate the emotional center of the music.  

“Bill was trying to turn memory and nostalgia into sound in a way that connected with the kind of music he makes now,” Wasner says. “Knowing him and thinking about the way I use music to process my experience, I can imagine that there is some sort of healing that unfolded in bringing all of those sides of his experience together. Childhood is the way I related to it, this sense of embracing nostalgia. The weight of things you remember from that part of your life and how your memory changes them—there’s this kind of ghostliness I wanted to capture. And the melodrama of youth, too. That’s what he’s going for, not the melodrama of adulthood, but of youth, which seems more authentic.”

Brittelle became interested in Wye Oak when a friend who was touring with Dirty Projectors told him about how Wasner had picked up the band’s complex vocal arrangements by ear.

“I always loved Jenn’s voice, and I’d been searching for someone who has a pop sensibility but can learn difficult music,” Brittelle says by phone. “There were things I wanted to do that are hard for people who aren’t from a classical background, but when you get to a certain level you transcend your background. She has perfect relative pitch. This project never could have gotten off the ground without her.”  

Brittelle works in the modern classical world, but he’s no stranger to pop, as an avowed Frank Ocean fan (an influence detectable in faint R&B traceries on songs such as “Forbidden Colors”) who used to front post-punk band The Blondes. But Spiritual America is about more than reconciling his classical and pop sides—it’s also about reconciling his childhood and adulthood. It took shape over a tumultuous, existential-crisis-laden period in his life. 

“The only way I have to work through big existential crises is music,” Brittelle says, confirming Wasner’s intuition. He was raised Christian in Western North Carolina, which immediately suggests a familiar narrative: a young person breaking away from his family and church. But it was Brittelle’s family that broke the church away from him, explaining why the album feels as much like an elegy as a purge.

“What drove a lot of this was a longing to be back under what I think of as a dome,” Brittelle says. “As a new father and a freelance artist and a Buddhist in New York, I felt like my spiritual survival strategies were breaking down rapidly. I longed for feeling like there were clearer lines delineating things. There was something about knowing the captain of the football team was the number-one guy, that cars were cool, that this was the right kind of music.”

Brittelle says his mother had a crisis of faith when he was around fifteen. He was abruptly severed from his church and his Christian school when his family moved to upstate New York. In his early twenties, he had what he calls a psychological breakdown, which is incarnated in “Birds of Paradise.”

“I was still working through my relationship with Christianity, and I hadn’t moved to [the city] yet and turned my back on everything,” he says. “I felt a psychic break coming on and thought, ‘I can’t meditate my way out of this.’ I started to see something elitist in saying, ‘Isn’t it silly to believe these things that people in middle America believe?’ That’s who I was growing up, and to an extent, it’s who I’ll always be. Beyond the literal belief that Jesus died on the cross, there’s a whole other part that just has to do with our emotional structuring and the way we think about love and death.”

Brittelle realized he had to go home—not just to write the record, but for his own wellbeing. There were numerous threads tugging him toward North Carolina, from the work with Wye Oak to a commission from the Eastern Band of the Cherokee that the North Carolina Symphony premiered last year.

Though it’s abstract, a definite narrative plays out across Spiritual America. It explores an alternate path in Brittelle’s life, one in which he stayed in Newton, got a job, bought a Trans Am, and whisked a woman he loved away from her alcoholic father. This is how he imagined his life would go before he was uprooted to New York. To write it, he had to ensconce himself in his childhood room, with his Bible and his yearbooks, and drive around familiar streets listening to hair metal.

“The religious crisis was a catalyst for recognizing there are a lot of different ways my life could have gone,” he says. “One of the things I realized is that I’m still culturally Christian in a sense; I have a worldview that was built in that environment, and I feel comfortable when there’s a structure to death, to God, to all these different relationships we have, and that felt really beautiful and calming to me.”

Brittelle thought that in order to be a whole person, he had to integrate his childhood instead of walling it off. The poignancy coursing through the record is the realization that integrating it doesn’t mean getting it back. After all, as alluring as nostalgia can be, as “Forbidden Colors” would have it, it’s also a drug, even a poison. 

“That was written after driving around North Carolina listening to Def Leppard’s Hysteria over and over and realizing I had reached an impasse,” Brittelle says. “I felt like I wasn’t up to the task of upholding all the commitments I’d made—to my family, my work, my art. Going so far into playing out this idea of “what if?” was not really helpful. In a weird way, I feel like making this album both created and solved huge problems in my life. It was so fucking impossible to do, the scale was so huge. But now I feel this sense of peace and freedom, partly because it’s done, but also because I realized that, in a sense, my religion is those commitments.”

For Brittelle, the hardest and most invaluable lesson he learned from the process was also a painful one: Some things you lose simply cannot be recovered, such as youth, innocence, and an ingenuous view of the world. You feel you might die if you can’t get it back. Then, when you give it your all and fail, you find that you’re still alive.   

“I came to the conclusion that there’s essentially no way back to it,” Brittelle says. “You can have nostalgia for it, you can long for it, and you can even do what I did and live in it, play it out and ask what would have happened if I’d stayed in this direction. Instead of judgment, there’s a genuine longing for that world, which hasn’t actively been part of who I am as an adult. I’d reached an impasse being able to function with the first seventeen years of my life walled off.”

Personally, I also came to understand what I identified with in the record before I fully knew what it was about. Like Brittelle, I was raised Christian and then chose a different path. But certain stories still structure my psychology, not least the Edenic myth of being cast out of a paradise to which you can never return. Whether that’s the certainty of Christianity or the innocence of childhood, we all know how it feels to be exiled from the safety of fixed borders into infinite space and having to find our way to somewhere else.

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