by Theodore Rowe
Let me be dully straightforward—I adore Wendy Eisenberg’s new album Time Machine. While I want to sit back and be charmed by Eisenberg’s smart melodies and elegant guitar playing, the album tangles too complex of a web to hastily glance at. Eisenberg’s melodic contours extend outward before pulling back in then curving unexpectedly elsewhere. Each song imagines and scopes out a slight thing—be it an object, person, or event—then recapitulates up and out to a much larger cosmic range. It is the stuff of daily walks with collected slights and objects reorienting the streets and refreshing the senses. Eisenberg channels a folk-wisdom specialized by artists like Linda Perhacs while adopting a playfulness like Perhac’s contemporary Julia Holter. And sure, it’s a lo-fi bedroom album boasting all of the clichéd intimacy that straight-to-tape recordings purport, but it’s rare for an album like this to reach such high poetic intensity.
Eisenberg looks out and sketches scenes familiar to the bedroom pop listener; reflections on the amassed impressions of the day, faltering relationships, and what-ifs pile up and seem more bridgeable in their lo-fidelity. I never feel barricaded from Eisenberg’s detailed universe, despite never having set foot in New Hampshire or being attracted to a postal worker. Instead, Eisenberg’s mythos of slightness both establish a basic foundation for the songs and transcend their purported place. The “two dalmatians” in “New Hampshire” serve as a lyrical postcard, but more importantly, pinpoint an imagined geography to return to (or not). The muddled tape and guitar line’s minor chaos near the end of the song hints at the meeting of imagined places and their reality.
But Eisenberg is funny too, and I don’t want her humor to be lost in any reading between the lines. Her uncanny ability to hone in on a peculiar detail and twist it around within a mesh of guitar lines is disarmingly clever. When Eisenberg reassures the partner of the couple’s love in “Elbow and the Ear,” the sideways dip into a woozy guitar line throws off any previous balancing act and becomes melodramatic in the cry to “believe” her. It’s at once tragic and hilarious and reminds me of any of Stephin Merritt’s lovelorn victims lost in disillusionment. “Postal Man” follows a similar lure in which a “sexy Postal Man” is going, sailing, and leaving allowing for a self-examination of “friendly distance / gentle cruelty” that is charismatically cold. Such lucid detachedness forms the album’s overarching aesthetic and can be explained by the mourning of “thoughtfulness” found in the album’s titular first track and concluding song. In Time Machine, only playacting or a trip back to the past can come close to capturing a shred of sanctity.
Eisenberg’s search for thoughtfulness also attempts to catalog the nearly imperceptible. “Make a List” tells of a “little spark / tiny fishes / these are things / you own / until you finally / hear them / speak.” The wayward things—trinkets on the shelf, barely sensed moments—are waiting to be met in a transformative experience. Thus, the dour conclusion of “Elbow and the Ear” lies in the partner’s inability to “hear the mariachi.” It’s the collecting of these small things that link up so well with Eisenberg’s air-thin voice and note-by-note guitar playing to give the album a sense of a slight, but constant reorientation. Beauty and anxiety follow their own pathways until a messy entanglement ensues.
If listeners privilege bedroom recordings that build escapist worlds underlined by artistic intimacy, then Eisenberg issues a reminder that the immediate and local offer new avenues for exploration. It seems to me that many artists are nowadays asking themselves why they continue to record, create, and distribute (without considering the possibility of silence). Albums proliferate out of a sense of artistic purposelessness—we must go on, what else can we do? Time Machine mourns the loss of this meaning, but strives to chip away at it now in order to unearth the fragments required to push forward towards the new. In doing so with a robust intelligence, Eisenberg weaves together a miniature cosmos to enter, then transcend, looking down upon it while floating further away to somewhere else.