It’s easy to overlook a band like Widowspeak, who have been around for a few years while making music that is all within a very specific lane of hazy country/shoegaze/grunge (they call themselves “cowboy grunge”). None of that changes on their newest album, Expect the Best, but it still represents a subtle progression for the band and is their most confident and self-assured release yet. It’s one of those breakthroughs that is unlikely to be widely recognized as one, similar to how I felt about Beach House’s Thank Your Lucky Stars album back in 2015.
Widowspeak’s calling card has always been singer Molly Hamilton, who has had one of the best voices in music since their self-titled debut in 2011. She only really sings one way, but it’s perfect for this dreamy style of music, and her voice inherently captures the feelings of nostalgia and longing that fit a band that (for better or worse) has a very 90s aesthetic. While mostly sounding the same, Hamilton makes some subtle shifts on this album that help make Expect the Best feel different and better than Widowspeak’s previous efforts. Her voice is more a part of the music than it has been before, and it’s aided by her lyrics, which are the most direct and relatable she has written.
The gorgeous opener, “The Dream,” sets the tone for the rest of the album, with Hamilton waiting in line, thinking about leaving town and going west (likely mirroring real-life for the band, who moved from New York to Tacoma back to New York). “Isn’t that the dream?” she wonders in the chorus, and the rest of Expect the Best asks similar questions about the choices we make and the inertia we sometimes have to overcome to make them. “When I Tried” is the most direct song in this regard, as Hamilton confronts feelings of malaise in what might be the most straight-forward rock song the band has recorded. Her lyric “why am I still like this” speaks to any self-loathing slacker.
Hamilton repeats lyrics a lot on Expect the Best, which is another clever way of portraying inertia in the music. The most striking example is on the album closer, “Fly on the Wall,” where she repeats the phrase “it was nothing” for minutes until Robert Earl Thomas’ guitar builds and drowns her out. The song is about a go-nowhere relationship, and the repetition gets across the idea of doing the same thing over and over while hoping the situation will change. On “When I Tried,” the repetition of the phrase “you can try all the time” at the end feels more like a pep talk to herself, but it’s unclear if it will be effective.
A lot of bands use nostalgia in a cynical way by trying to transfer your love of older music onto themselves without bringing anything new to the table. I’m sure Widowspeak have been accused of that also, but I think this band uses nostalgia in a purposeful way that actually adds to the richness of their music. The retro, dreamy sound automatically has the feeling of looking back and wondering what could have been, which plays into Hamilton’s lyrics about encountering forks on the road in life and not being sure if you chose the right one. So even if Expect the Best sounds familiar, the depth and quality of these songs makes it feel new.