I’ll say it now, before we go any further. Love The Stranger is my current frontrunner for my favorite album of the year. I will not feign journalistic objectivity. It is, in my mind, the best work the band has ever done, by a significant margin. Up until my recent conversation with the band, I couldn’t quite pinpoint why, but now it’s obvious. Love The Stranger is not only the best Friendship record, it is the most Friendship record. 2017’s Shock out of Season and 2019’s Dreamin’ are albums I spin all the time, but they feel very much in the vein of some of the artists I mentioned earlier, like Bill Callahan in Smog, Dave Berman in Silver Jews, Will Oldham as Palace. Yes, these are bands but more often than not they feel like vehicles for their lead singer/songwriter. In Friendship’s case, this meant Wriggins. There was ornamentation, sure, but everything was ultimately in service of the vocals, scaffolding rather than brick, frames rather than windows. Love The Stranger fundamentally changes that in a way that breathes new life into this set of songs.
“In a way, it feels like I keep on doing the same thing and then these guys bring all their extra stuff which makes it not just my thing anymore,” says Wriggins, just a hint of relief in his voice, glad to see his ownership over the songs dissolve a bit. The title track from Wriggins’ Mr. Chill was one of my favorite songs of 2021 but to hear the new version, expanded in every direction musically, is to see a song come into its own. “What’s The Move” takes things a step further, removing Wriggins completely and featuring Jess Shoman, vocalist for Chicago’s Tenci, on vocals. “We had a clearer sense for when to let someone do what they do and not get in the way of that,” says Cormier-O’Leary of the newfound freedom everyone felt this time around.
So what I am basically saying is I cannot wait for Friendship to finally rid themselves of Wriggins’ influence. Except, of course, that’s not what I am saying. I have practically been living in this record since I first heard it and Wriggins’ words continue to ricochet around my brain all day like marbles in a pinball machine. I could sit here and run through my favorite lines (“Apathy joins me in the booth, Old familiar feeling”), giving you a glimpse into the many times they tumble out (“Only a nose hair away from inner piece today”) as I make a sandwich (“I need solitude and I also need you”) or empty my cat’s litter (“I can tell you stuff I can’t tell anyone else, because you don’t threaten to help”), but I won’t bore you. That said, Love The Stranger works best when these two factors come together — Wriggins’ everyman poetry and the band’s ever-expanding musical palette. “Chomp Chomp” is, in my mind, the most accomplished example of this chemistry. A simple, compelling, country-tinged song, the opening moments of “Chomp Chomp” alternate between a curly guitar riff, a train-whistle melodica, and Wriggins’ highly specified scene of Vans sneakers and sips of Jager. It’s at the midpoint, though, when Wriggins’ recedes into the background, that the song becomes the kind you absolutely need to blast through headphones in a dark room, the band rising like a dust storm, engulfing the song’s final third.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when or how a band takes a significant step. As I learn about the inner workings of Friendship and Love The Stranger, it remains elusive as to why this album feels different, even for the band themselves. When pressed, Wriggins cites incremental changes, improvements built upon improvements. They are at their most comfortable on Love The Stranger because they’ve grown more comfortable with each other, creatively stretching their legs without worrying about taking anyone else’s leg room. They’d each had time to do their own thing and so came back with a more nuanced perspective. The whole process was more fruitful because they’d worked with Krieger on Dreamin’ and knew the things that could open up for them when it came time to record. “Nothing was way different but everything was better,” say Wriggins, putting it simply.
There is one change that cannot be denied, however, and that’s their recent signing to the North Carolina-based Merge Records. It wasn’t until after Love The Stranger was done that Friendship announced they’d signed with the label, though, so putting any indie-major sheen on the album does not follow the correct line of cause and effect. That said, the leap in potential exposure matches perfectly with the creative leap and gives the band a certain credibility that comes with signing with a label like Merge. The fact that Merge didn’t even see Friendship play live before signing them threw even the band for a bit of a loop. But when you hear Love The Stranger, it becomes obvious; this was a record, and band, that needed to be heard.
Friendship’s Love The Stranger is out now via Merge Records, and can be ordered here. The band plays its Philly album-release show with Tenci this Saturday, August 6th at Johnny Brenda’s; tickets and more information can be found at WXPN’s Concerts and Events page.