There are certain genre-modifying words people tend to use when describing a band. For Chicago duo Whitney‘s first two albums, that phrase is “sepia-tinged rock.” “People love that word, but I don’t necessarily like it,” Max Kakacek, one-half of Whitney, says one sunny Chicago day in the courtyard of a French café. “If that was something before, we were now thinking about more of a colorful palette, a lot more diversity.” Whereas Whitney’s 2016 debut Light Upon The Lake and their 2019 sophomore album Forever Turned Around could be described as dusty, autumnal folk rock, their newest album Spark is Whitney in technicolor.
The opening line on Spark‘s “Nothing Remains” lays out the album’s ethos. A shifting beat accompanies Whitney vocalist Julien Ehrlich’s recognizable tenor as he sings, “Troubles never go away, but they change / I just stay the same.” When the band began writing Spark, they recognized the world around them was changing and — though they never lost sight of where Whitney began — their sound changed with it. Across 12 tracks, the duo sidestep their reputation for pastoral, folksy music and instead embrace playfulness and experimentation on their most opalescent, pop-leaning effort yet.
Whitney didn’t initially set out to make an indie pop album. In fact, Ehrlich used to tell interviewers that you “won’t hear Whitney making a synth record any time soon.” But Spark was recorded during “unprecedented times,” a phrase that became ubiquitous in 2020, which led to Whitney making some reevaluations about their lives and about their music. The band had just finished a lengthy tour and were in the midst of respective breakups when Kakacek traveled out to Portland to join Ehrlich, who had decamped to his hometown. Kakacek’s plane touched down on March 14th of 2020 — the exact day businesses closed and the country faced the reality of the pandemic — and he realized he would be stuck there for a while. So, in the face of new anxieties, lockdowns, and wildfires shrouding the West Coast in a haze of smoke, Ehrlich and Kakacek spent their days experimenting with a Mellotron synth while choreographed pop music videos played on a loop in the background. “The way in which you can probably hear our reaction to the state of the world through the record is how we wrote things that felt strong and vividly beautiful to us,” Elrich says. “We were just trying to create something that we could get lost in.”
These more casual songwriting sessions led the duo to let go of obsessiveness and perfectionism they had clung to in the past. “This was a little more open and we gave ourselves more space for experimentation,” Kakacek says. “Being able to be more carefree about the process was important.” And being essentially isolated helped the band detach themselves from the pressure of a new album. Elrich admits he got caught up in the media cycle during their sophomore release, which is understandable in the face of new fame and “sophomore slump” stress. “I was pretty preoccupied with making sure that [Forever Turned Around] had a story, down to the PR, which also just seems like trying to control something that you really can’t control anyway,” he recalls. So this time around, they relinquished expectations while still keeping fans in mind. “It’s always at the forefront of our minds to think about, ‘Someone who knows our band or likes our band, what would they like to hear? How would they want to hear us change and evolve?’”
Whitney’s indie-pop evolution and new, breezy approach to songwriting are more than tangible on the album. The music on Spark is refractory and iridescent, perhaps inspired by the disco ball that spun over their heads while they were recording. Some tracks like “Blue” do hearken back to their early, bluesy catalog. But songs like the lead single “Real Love” and the penultimate track “Lost Control” contrast their first two albums with a groove-driven beat, buoyant keys, and an upbeat tempo. Though 2016 Whitney might be surprised by their use of synths on Spark, Ehrlich says their renewed sound still feels like a natural progression for the band. “I think with each record, we’ve always been making the poppiest and most immediate music that we were capable of,” he says. “With this one, we were just doing exactly that. And I just think we executed it on a level that we had never reached before.”
Even the album title itself, Spark, reflects a certain liveliness and panache they bring to the music. It was born out of a lengthy cross-country drive back to Chicago, when the two were keeping entertained by throwing out words to see what stuck. “[The word] embrace kept coming up,” Ehrlich recalls. “We thought about Embrace as an album title as well, but something about it wasn’t perfect.” So, they eventually landed on Spark, a title that felt true to the band but captured their musical transformation. A spark is bright and chromatic, as seen both on the colorful cover and the glittering production that ties the album together.
Underneath all of Spark‘s luster has the band grappling with some big questions, masked by upbeat rhythms and danceable riffs. Forever Turned Around examined shifting relationships and their roles within them, but Spark turns inward. “Never Crossed My Mind” is a wistful and anthemic reflection on the passage of time and “Self,” a song that sits snugly in the centerfold of the album, also offers a pensive respite. “Self” has rippling, washed-out horns and cascading vocals that cut in to confront self-isolation and the people they’ve become. It’s also a song Whitney are particularly proud of. “When we were making it, I was like, ‘This stretches everything we’ve ever tried to do and takes it to another place,’” Kakacek said. “It took us years to try to figure out how to write a song like that.”
Pondering their legacy and doing some soul-searching might have been a symptom of their isolation and state of the world at the time, but it’s a subject Whitney has never shied away from in the past. “Writing about aging and time passing is always so easy to do because it’s always happening,” Elrich jokes. But they do try to walk a fine line between being guarded about their personal lives in their lyrics and remaining true to what they are feeling. The single “Memory,” for example, has Elrich singing about confronting loneliness and anxiety, lyrics which are juxtaposed by swift and spirited instrumentals.
“Memory” also copes with legacy after death. When asked how Whitney want to be remembered by the people around them, the band first says they hope their music speaks for itself. But they add that they mostly hope they’ll be remembered as committed artists who are grateful for the opportunity to make music as their job. Even if their sound continues to change on future albums, and they decide to lean into synths even more than they ever thought they would, one overarching goal remains: to continue creating music their listeners can connect with, and most importantly, to be remembered as “good people that impacted people with their art.”
Spark is out now via Secretly Canadian. Get it here.