Ah, love. Popular music may very well not exist without it. But even before the Beatles sent you all their lovin’ and Elvis checked out of the Heartbreak Hotel, romance – not to mention infatuation, obsession, lust, and eroticism – figured heavily into song. As an extreme example, consider classical composer Hector Berlioz, who in 1830 went so far as to compose a portion of his famed Symphonie Fantastique while tripped out on opium after being continuously snubbed by his main squeeze and heretofore unrequited love, Harriet Smithson. The symphony as a whole is a dark and occasionally delusional glimpse into the life of a tortured artist who put who the pangs of desire center stage.
The back story of Travis Wiggins’ 8th release under the Essex Chanel appellation may not possess any of the high brow melodrama of 19th century Romanticism, but it is an unabashed treatise on love and its many effects on the human psyche. Whether or not the album approaches the topic with any degree of gravity depends on the song; there are occasional brushes with seriousness, but the unorthodox instrumentation and awkwardly phrased lyrics also ensure a sizeable amount of whimsy along the way.
The album begins on a lighthearted note with “Skinny Dippin’,” a cross-genre ditty that makes good on Wiggins’ promise of freely pulling from diverse styles. The prominence of the banjo and fiddle recall bluegrass music, though the vocal melodies suggest a stronger pop sensibility. The lyrics – which are shockingly earnest and sung without irony – seem like they were passionately scrawled by a 13-year old in the throes of adolescent infatuation: “Take off your clothes / and get very naked / and jump into the cold water.” The next two tracks (“See the Light” and “Already in Heaven”) seem headed straight for the coffeehouse with an emphasis on hushed vocals, unobtrusive guitar playing, and subtle appearances from the string section.
“I Know You Didn’t Think About” is heavy on Arcade Fire-style spectacle even though the vocals sound like a more enraged Conor Oberst. “Nothing to Lose” is an affecting meditation on the blissful desires of past flames, set to precious female vocals and lush string harmonies. “For Granted” features some of the album’s technically impressive guitar work, though it is easily overshadowed by the preachy nature of the lyrics.
Love is Proximity’s best moments come at its core. “The Danger of Taking Things for Granted” is a dark and plodding blues number that recalls imagery of the Old West. The instrumental layering includes some fast-paced auxiliary percussion (bongos) that instantly jumps out from the otherwise lethargic groove. “Speaking With Eyes” at first seems as though it’s going into Fray-esque balladeering before some unexpected brass and accordion steer things toward Calexico-inspired southwestern Americana.
Few would dispute that Wiggins has tremendous songwriting capabilities, but Love is Proximity still ends up being a disappointingly lukewarm affair. His choice of instruments is impressively varied and at times, even bold, but the unimaginative lyrics and odd turns of phrase seem poorly improvised and haphazard by comparison. With little time and so many words, it’s the musical equivalent of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Additionally, a stinker like “I think I’ll sleep well tonight / and I’ll get very naked” (“Already in Heaven”) seems like just the type of poorly chosen statement that Paul Rudd’s character could’ve whipped out in I Love You, Man. There is much to love about this album, but not enough to get too close. Proximity is everything.