Ask singer-songwriter Gabriel Birnbaum what inspired Male Models – the diverse new album from New York band Wilder Maker – and he’ll mention everything from American novelist James Salter and the NBA playoffs to Thin Lizzy and the delicate tightrope of positive masculinity. These reference points might sound arbitrary to the uninitiated listener, but together they provide some insight into the creation of an album that somehow succeeds at being both an apocalyptic novel of ideas and the most cohesive party playlist that you’ve ever heard.
The music of Male Models was recorded live over several days with a core band that consisted of Birnbaum and longtime collaborators Nick Jost and Sean Mullins. Despite his status as the frontman and principal songwriter of Wilder Maker, Birnbaum’s voice can only be heard singing lead on seven of the twelve songs. The remaining tracks have guest vocalists taking the mic, unveiling an impressive lineup that includes (but isn’t limited to) Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz, Katie Von Schleicher, and Jordan Lee (aka Mutual Benefit). Like guests at a strange afterparty, when you hear these accomplished vocalists recount Birnbaum’s tales of unrequited love, drunkenness, and desperation, it feels almost voyeuristic, as if you were sitting in a crowded cocktail bar, sneaking glances at nearby tables.
“We all listen to playlists a lot, even us album diehards” Birnbaum admits, “I’ve been keeping an ever-expanding playlist of songs that I never want to skip, with all of these different voices back to back. I wanted to make a record that sounded like a playlist in this way; it became a kind of songwriting challenge for me.”
Male Models succeeds in capturing the energy of a crowded party and its accompanying playlist without losing the philosophical underpinnings of its concept. Musically, it also changes shape constantly. Across the 12 songs of the album, listeners will hear electrified soul, heartfelt folk songs, indie rock, and searing barn burners, all of which are expertly tethered by Birnbaum’s sardonic and doom-laden storytelling.
A great example of his distinct songwriting style can be found in the opening track ‘Letter of Apology’, in which Birnbaum himself sings: “Sorry that I told your sister’s boyfriend that he was history’s greatest monster. I got up on a chair and announced to the party that we were all living in a fiction.” Through an unreliable narrator, Birnbaum has set the stage, cracked a joke, and confessed a devastating existential crisis – in just two lines.
The band’s unique blend of control and playfulness is further established in tracks like the pop-oriented ‘A Professional’ (beautifully sung by Felicia Douglass of Dirty Projectors and Ava Luna) and ‘New Anxiety’, which Birnbaum wrote as his answer to Springsteen’s classic ‘Atlantic City’.
One of the most energetic songs on the album, ‘All Power Must Remain Hidden’ is a propulsive jam that, complete with grin-inducing cowbell, wouldn’t feel out of place in a rowdy sports stadium. That is, of course, until you realize that the lyrics are a meditation on power dynamics and Birnbaum’s attempts at reconciling a friend’s abusive relationship. “All power must remain hidden,” he sings, “Or it can be undone like a single knot holding up a black dress.”
Perhaps destined to be the most talked-about track on the album, ‘O Anna’ features Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz on the mic. Duritz instantly makes the song feel nostalgic and warm, while Birnbaum’s lyrics explore male isolation and social constructs through the metaphor of Michael Jordan’s athleticism.
The album finishes with the heartbreaking track ‘Jason’. Compared to the bombastic affair that preceded it, the song sounds almost oppressively stark and skeletal. Featuring little more than piano and Birnbaum’s voice, ‘Jason’ tells the story of two brothers and their tense reunion after a long time apart. Their relationship is heavy, burdened with the unique kind of discomfort you can only find between two siblings. They sit down for a meal and speak for just a moment before one of them storms out.
Running beneath the final track like an underground current is a field recording of fireworks, captured accidentally on a cell phone in the early days of the pandemic. As the remaining brother raises his hand to ask for the check, the listener can detect the sound of pyrotechnics reaching their peak, like a curtain of white noise being dragged across a stage. It feels like the end of a party, when everyone else is asleep but you’ve been awake long enough to regain some semblance of sobriety. That’s when you start going over all of the conversations that you had throughout the night, the many voices you heard, the curated party playlist, and you realize with a small twinge of melancholy: the night is over, it’s time to go home.