It's pop music, but without compromise. That, as far as anyone can accurately gather, is the impetus behind Verbs, the absolutely flawless sophomore album from Au. Much like Friend and Foe, last year's dramatic skewed-pop declaration courtesy of the boys in Menomena, Verbs raises the stakes with an album so decadent, layered, and textural that it's difficult not to listen to these recordings without losing your breath just a little.
Essentially Au is the vehicle of Luke Wyland, a soft-spoken, if not shy, artist who just happens to express himself best through the medium of music. The fact that he is even behind a mic feels downright accidental, given that he lacks the brash theatrics typically required of musicians, particularly the ringleader behind a project as ambitious as Au.
"I'm not your traditional frontman," says Wyland. "I try to stay as anonymous as possible, I'm not flashy onstage or known for my banter." To combat this he has, oftentimes literally, surrounded himself with his friends. So when Verbs opens with "All My Friends," it's exactly that. Au is backed by the ethereal chant of a 20-plus member vocal choir of Wyland's closest confidants. It's a touching way to signal a sea change for the experimental band—whose rolling tide of members varies, with the lone constant of Wyland—and their newfound pop sensibilities.
Granted, when Au performs pop music, there is barely a chorus in the lot. Instead the genre is joyfully dismembered and reassembled to form something entirely different. It's listenable and thoroughly enjoyable, but a far cry from what one might expect from the pop canon. It's a complicated balancing act—experimentation versus widespread listenability—whose uncertainty is eagerly embraced by Wyland.
"I still want to make music that is incredibly strong and unique, but I am interested in pop music, its place in culture, and how it brings people together." Wyland continues, "In the past all my music was very isolating. I wanted to have the structure of these songs be pop-oriented, but the texture of everything is still relatively experimental."
This daunting task is achieved gracefully in the sleepy-eyed "Summerheat," the orchestral "Two Seasons," and the marvelously assembled "RR vs. D," the latter of which just might be the closest thing the band might ever have to a traditional pop single. But Wyland is reluctant to take all the credit, "My goal was to make more of a pop album this time around, and to incorporate as many friends as I could. I'm lucky to have such brilliant minds constantly around me, and I wanted their voices to reflect in the songs."
In opening the door to whoever was willing—participants included Sarah Winchester of A Weather, Ah Holly Fam'ly's Becky Dawson, members of Yellow Swans, Evolutionary Jass Band, Parenthetical Girls, and more—Verbs is coated thick with the fingerprints of far too many artists to properly gauge, yet the recording never feels too overwhelming or the victim of one too many cooks in the kitchen. And even if the album exits in tribute to his admiration for his friends, in the end, it's still Wyland's darling. "Ultimately the songs are definitely mine—they start and end with me—but they are steered down different roads by working with different people."