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Looking back on one of 2009’s bigger surprises: Wonderlick – Topless at the Arco Arena

16/08/2011

An AC/DC concert somewhere in the US sometime in the 90s. During a performance of a certain song a woman in the audience fully submits to that rush of excitement and in celebration of one of best moments of her life she takes her top off out of a random burst of thought and flashes her naked breasts to the band – and eventually the whole audience as the spotlight and the LCD screen cameras turn to her for a fleeting moment. No one knows who she is but she suddenly becomes a legend for a few fleeting seconds. Later you find out that this sort of thing happens all the time in the band’s concerts during that one song. The way the light and the cameras turned over to her in an instant, the way it was only her who did it, how it’s all a recurring event… was it really all just spur of the moment done in a live rush or was it all planned? A fake rush, someone trying to act like the ultimate fan for tradition’s sake and possible payment? It’s something that begins to haunt the mind of one certain concert goer: a music journalist who’s living the good life as a part of one of the success stories of the late 90s dot com boom, living his dream and having the perfect job of listening to music all day and getting paid for it (even if 99% of it is terrible). The bubble’s about to burst though and soon he’ll end up falling back to reality as the lay-offs begin.

The inspiration behind Wonderlick‘s 2009 album Topless at the Arco Arena is the story of the topless woman and the disenchanment of the corporate world meeting with one’s passion in a non-too-pleasant way, detailed in the long essay that unfolds itself from the album’s booklet. It’s a brilliant and a very interesting read, and it also serves an important purpose as it cracks open the case of Topless at the Arco Arena. It’s an album inspired by both the case of the topless woman and the disenchantment towards corporate media, using those two cases as a launch point to study human behaviour: who we really are and do we ever really change or just take on new disguises? It’s an album where the catchiest song is equipped with ridiculously addicting “ba ba ba” singalong choruses sung along with irresistable genuine smiles and merges it with more introspective verses talking about more personal situations, but at the same time bears the name “This Song is a Commercial” and talks about being “vaguely defined in order to appeal to the maximum number of fans” and having “parts designed to make you feel that someone finally understands”. And after that it subverts itself and begins to process the thought patterns of a disgruntled fan who sees the cynical attempts of reaching out the song tries to make yet can’t help but sing along and bounce to it.

Like many concept albums, a lot of Topless’ strength lies in its lyrics, the binding glue between all of its songs. It’s the words that offer the big heureka moments for the listener and which give the several layers to peel through with subsequent listens, doubly so after you’ve read the essay in the liner notes and see the lines drawn between the texts. It’s not to say that the music in the album isn’t worth note: if anything, it backs up the lyrics perfectly by sounding wonderfully personal and human thanks to its decidedly home-made sound built on drum machines and strummy guitars backed by bedroom keyboards and layers upon layers of vocal harmonies, forming into surprisingly big and heartfelt pop anthems. But while the music and performance makes you like, even love, the album, it’s the mythology behind it and its words that forms its backbone. Whether the narrator is singing along and pointing devil horns to the sky in a sold-out stadium (populated by a woman without a shirt), sits nervously while waiting for the next command from the higher-ups or recounts the nerve-wrecked and awkardly romantic tale of two soulmates meeting up (answering “I love you” with a “why?” is a matter of few simple lines but makes for an achingly poignant verse) or recounting the same old arguments two lovers have had forever that they can never change, there’s always a curious mixture of both an observer and a personal narrator involved. The texts are littered with an observational, almost study-like tone like in a story but they are told through a narrative that has a strong sense of being there involved.

Most importantly, Topless at the Arco Arena is a great album that keeps on giving. At 16 tracks you end up having a few songs worth of paddling in less stellar waters, but the only genuine throwaway moment is actually a cover: Wonderlick’s version of The Clash’s “Janie Jones” is thoroughly alright but pales in comparison to the duo’s original material – not to mention it never really seems to tie into the concept, sounding even more out of place. The rest however is a bittersweetly joyous collection of splendidly done hook-driven pop hits, bedroom-sized anthemic singalongs and the occasional heartbreaker moment to wave your lighter to. Highlights are constant: Commercial’s upbeat singalong, the tearjerking romantic grandiose of “You First”, the weary and strained “Your Majesty”, the roll and stumble of “Fear of Chicago”, the power-pop of “Everybody Loves Jenny”, the (analystically) stadium-rocking “Devil Horns” and, well, most of the album. It never really got much press (if any) or exposure when it appeared which is a great shame: it is easily one of 2009’s greatest offerings and a certain future classic in my shelves, both in terms of lyrical and musical depth.

In retrospective, it’s amusingly coincidental that for an album partly inspired by one writer’s experience of working on a site that recommended music to others, I ended up hearing about Topless at the Arco Arena via someone recommending it to me on an online site; to be more exact, major continuing thanks to Trey from the old Indie Paws blog I used to write for who posted about this and got me instantly interested. Hopefully I’ll be able to pay it forward and get someone else interested about the album via this.


This Song Is a Commercial

Stream the entire album here

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