The second song on Salty Town is a matter-of-fact recollection of returning home from a mental institution. Lost for anything else to do, vocalist Robert Vagg walks up and down a hallway repeatedly. The lyrics don’t need to impart that time has lost all meaning and that emotion has been tranquilised, because Wonderfuls need only draw breath in order to elicit this sensation. Salty Town is these sensations writ large.
Wonderfuls always sounds lost, and ‘Relapse’ is one of the most horrifyingly powerless songs I’ve ever heard. When Vagg closes the song with the refrain “I think they’re out there”, it’s not clear whether this is a fear, some kind of solace, or a vague offering of context for what has ensued. The second possibility seems the most remote.
Salty Town is tough. Not because it’s difficult to enjoy, but because it’s so easy to succumb to. Its listless sense of dreadful sadness never lets up, and it’s probably instinctual for us to be drawn to it. Released as a limited CD-R in 2012 and now finally issued on LP, I’m still worried I’ll write about it incorrectly. No single component in Wonderfuls’ music begs attention or deconstruction, because it’s unerringly passive and matter-of-fact. Its concerns are abundantly clear to anyone who listens once. Danny McGirr’s guitar playing is unambiguously crestfallen – chorus-laden, sentimental – and Robert Vagg’s vocals sound terminally ill. There are no shades, because Wonderfuls is just different iterations of misery that will probably sound the same to most people. When it’s not bleak, Wonderfuls is funny because it can only manage to be bleak. When you laugh, it’s because you’re nervous.
Salty Town winded me when I first heard it was because it’s totally unafraid. Vagg’s lyrics are sometimes cryptic but you needn’t deconstruct them, because these are instinctual and unfiltered responses. They’ve not been formulated to death. During ‘North’, Vagg recounts a small town and an afternoon spent there as a child, and the song is horrifying in its offhand melding of the nostalgic and the destitute. Clay tennis courts, primary school playgrounds, then gleefully murdered animals and drug addict mothers. It’s a dream turned suddenly sour and grotesque, and Vagg’s severe and straight-faced delivery seems to acknowledge that this horror has been waiting forever to take a bite.
“He was the mother of an addict, born in the wrong ward of this place” – ‘North’
References to wards pop up a few times throughout Salty Town, as if to ridicule the notion that every broken way of life is a neat diagnosis away from being understood and thus maybe corrected. Vagg’s vocals often sound like weary disavowals of rationality: deadpan jibes at our habit of filing circumstances and feelings into scientific conditions. During ‘Where Does It End’, his singing that phrase is like a shrug of the shoulder: what are you going to do about it? This is it. In the world of Wonderfuls, the earth exudes unwelcoming and anxiety. Whenever Wonderfuls is vaguely funny, it’s always when it’s acknowledging how indelicate and artless it is. Similarly, whenever Wonderfuls is beautiful, such as during ‘Change’, it’s when it remembers life before everything went wrong. ‘Change’ stands in stark contrast because there’s a forlorn hope, but it’s retroactive: nothing in front could trigger it.
In some ways, Wonderfuls is a gruellingly masculine piece of work. Masculine because it’s about not being a man: it’s about not being strong, not being dependable and steadfast. It’s the horror of knowing that life has disallowed it. During ‘I Feel So Wrong’, Vagg is telling someone that he can’t explain why he cannot be all of this: he just can’t. If he did, the song would be titled more sensibly, more cleverly.