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Because Hold, Jack Tatum’s fifth album under the moniker Wild Nothing, was written in the aftermath of new parenthood during the pandemic, it was probably inevitable that it would be searching and existential music. But during the recording process, the artist known for synth-pop tastefulness took it as an opportunity to reach for a new sonic maximalism and wider set of influences.
With contributions from longtime collaborator Jorge Elbrecht, Tommy Davidson of Beach Fossils and Hatchie’s Harriette Pilbeam, first single “Headlights On” features an acid house-worthy bass groove and breakbeat that prove Tatum is playing for the rafters.
But that club ambiance is misdirection. “It’s a fun song, but lyrically, it’s about my wife and I going through one of the worst times in our relationship,” Tatum said. “I don’t know why, but I’ve always been so drawn to these kinds of juxtapositions and striking these balances.”
Tatum produced the rest of the record on his own, partially out of necessity, due to the challenges of the pandemic. “More than anything, this record reminded me of working on my first LP. Just truly being holed up in this room, alone with no input for such a long time,” he said. The songs were eventually brought to Adrian Olsen at Montrose Recording in Richmond to begin recording drums and filling in the gaps. While largely a product of isolation, Hold also reflects the things Tatum has learned from collaborators, both on previous records and during his acclaimed work with Japanese Breakfast and Molly Burch.
The rest of the record was mixed by Geoff Swan, who listeners might know for his work with Caroline Polachek and Charli XCX. “I reached out to Geoff because I wanted to find someone that could help me make this sound as big as possible,” he said. “I've always been very inspired by and attracted to big tent ’80s acts. Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush are two of my biggest influences ever because they clearly never shied away from that kind of ambition.” Swan put Tatum’s vocals high in the mix, and throughout the album, he embraces playful vocal processing like never before.
On “Basement El Dorado,” he sings about searching for heaven in a ruined world. “It’s a little bratty, but it’s also really about genuinely wishing there was a heaven—wouldn’t it be nice?” he said. “I didn’t want to get too heavy-handed about global warming and how the world is on fire, but I still wanted to get at the idea that this is what we’ve got. At least that’s how I view it. Heaven is a place on earth, and this is all we have.”
Tatum wasn’t necessarily thinking about spirituality back in 2019 when he started playing around with songs that would eventually make up Hold, but of course, life soon intervened. Back in February 2020, he had finished setting up a home studio in his Richmond house when his son was born. Weeks later, lockdown orders went out, and the sleepless nights of early parenthood slid into an even more profound isolation.
“Bringing new life into the world drastically changes how you define yourself and what your purpose is,” he said. “Before, I wrapped up so much of myself in my music and all of it, the writing, the traveling. That was really who I thought I was. The double whammy of having a kid and not being able to do that anymore—it exposed a lot about what is important to me. It made me understand much better why people gravitate to divine beliefs or why it feels so good to attempt to have an answer.”
Without eschewing the atmospheric avant-pop of his main influences, his existential moment did open a few new windows. “Early pandemic when my son was still an infant, one of the few things that I oddly found really calmed me down was dance music. I had so many sleepless nights awake with my headphones on, my son in his little sleeping pod next to me. Meanwhile I’d be listening to Underworld. Somehow it set my brain right”.
It’s hard to break new ground when writing about parenthood, but on Hold, Tatum leans into its exaltant mundanity and approaches the big questions obliquely. The baby is wide awake, the car is easing down the road, people are checking their reflections in the mirror.
Tatum moved from Los Angeles back to his home state of Virginia about five years ago in search of a scaled-back lifestyle. The relatively suburban environment—and the occasional regret it inspired—proved to be great artistic fodder. “You can make a big decision and be fully committed to it, know 100 percent that it’s the right choice and still have these moments of “Did we fuck up? Was this really the best thing for us to do?””
It’s the paradox of modern America—the suburbs are supposed to be stultifying to art, but they are so full of human desperation perfect for dramatizing. On “Suburban Solutions”, he presents an anti-jingle with an acidly bright synthesizer melody, imploring you to sign on the dotted line, put your feet up, and embrace sweet oblivion.
Adding to the song’s menacing cheeriness is a chorus-sung bridge, made with assistance from Molly Burch and Tatum’s wife, Dana, It was loosely inspired by the classic Martika song “Toy Soldiers” and the long-ago pop craze for children’s choirs, and he embraces the trend’s less-than-stellar reputation. “What’s so wonderful about being someone who is borderline obsessed with 80s music and is making music in 2023 is that I didn’t live through it. So I have no skin in the game about what was cool or not at the time.”
By design, Hold dwells in uncertainty and fear, but in a package that encourages meditation and some levity.
“In the face of the pandemic, I think being a parent really forced my hand,” Tatum said. “I felt that I had no other choice but to have a positive outlook on the world. Because if I were to give in at any moment and say, "Oh, everything is horrible,” then I’ll feel as if I’ve lost and I’ve given up on my son being able to thrive in this world.”