Album Review: Flock of Dimes - Head of Roses

Last fall, I was recording an episode of the Anhedonic Headphones Podcast, when my guest—someone who I have known for roughly 19 years, selected the title track from the Wye Oak album Civilian. I realized that, as we discussed the song, the album as a whole, where it fell into her life and why she had selected it for her podcast episode, Civilian would be turning a decade old in March of 2021.

And like I have done in previous years, in January, I make a Sticky Note that floats on the desktop of my computer, where I begin listing off albums that will be celebrating milestone anniversaries—usually 10 or 20 years, occasionally making an exception for an odd number year like 15 or 25. This list is meant as a reminder, or motivator, maybe, when I think about what writing projects to take on—how much time do I want to dedicate to new releases, how much time and how much emotional capacity (if I can spare either of those things) do I have to put towards non-music writing, and then how much of myself do I want to give to revisiting something from the past, pouring over the backstory behind the record’s creation, becoming nostalgic for what the record meant to me at the time of its release, and then analyzing the music with a current critical analysis. 

The list means well—and I mean well toward my future self when I make it, or as I continue to add to it as the weeks turn into months, but like most of the deadlines, or lists of prospective projects I write for myself, it becomes a source of anxiety, and the handful of things on the pink Sticky Note that sits at the top left corner of my computer screen become daunting and intimidating. 

The month of March came and went, and now the month of April as well, and I even went back and listened to Civilian, beginning to end, for the first time in a very, very long time, and it brought up a lot of things that I was both hoping it wouldn’t, but knew very well that it would, because it is representative of a time in my life that I, unfortunately, spend a considerable amount of time ruminating on, despite my best efforts not to.

There are times when I am really good at talking myself out of things—talking myself out of snacking, or eating too much of something; talking myself out of taking a depression nap on my days off of work; talking myself out of buying clothing or a record online that I know I don’t really need. And I had a fleeting moment—it did not last very long at all, where I began to wonder how difficult, or how much of a challenge it would be to write a piece that was both an anniversary retrospective on Civilian, and what the last decade has meant for Wye Oak, and juxtaposing that against Head of Roses, the second full-length album from Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, released at the beginning of April, with the vinyl pressing delayed (but of course) turning up in my mailbox around a month later. 

I had a fleeting moment—it did not last very long at all, and I realized that where I am at right now, emotionally speaking, this would be entirely too much for me to take on, as intriguing of a conceit as it initially seemed. 

I might be showing my age here, which I guess is something I am not very good at hiding, but I am still remiss to only consume music through the usage of the computer, or a device of some kind. I understand, and appreciate, the convenience that the mobile app for a streaming service provides, especially in the car, or when I am on a walk. And yes, of course, I am grateful for the amount of music that is stored on my computer’s hard drive, but I am the kind of person that does not alway want to be tethered to the Internet, or my phone, or the computer, in order to listen to music. 

And because of this, and because there was a delay from when the conciliatory email containing a download of Head of Roses hit my inbox, to when the “Loser Edition”1 of the LP hit my turntable, it was an album that I knowingly was pacing myself with when listening to it—easing my way through, waiting to really immerse myself as I am wont to do, until I was able to properly experience it. 

What I did know about Head of Roses, outside of the dramatically contrasting advance singles that I enjoyed, is that it was a sad album, and an incredibly personal and reflective one for Wasner. 

And I guess it wasn’t until “Awake for The Sunrise,” the album’s penultimate track, was coming off of the turntable, through my stereo’s speakers, and it wasn’t until I held the liner notes in my hands and read the words, that I realized just how sad and just how personal and reflective the album was, and that, with a song like “Awake for The Sunrise,” Jenn Wasner was trying to kill me. 

And what I realized is that this isn’t the first time she has tried—she has tried and been successful at least twice before. The first, in 2009, with just a single lyric from the Wye Oak song, “Take it In”: “We are both the same—unwell.” The second, in 2011, with the harrowing epilogue to Civilian, “Doubt,” a song that ends the album, yes, but ends it with no resolve at all, and leaves you, even a decade later, with a terrible, unsettling chill that is difficult to shake.

And what I realized with a song like “Awake for The Sunrise,” is that Jenn Wasner was trying to kill me, and that this is the most successfully she’s done it. Because even days after this realization, I never really recovered from it. Like, you would think that at almost 38 years old, four minutes of contemporary popular music wouldn’t eviscerate me emotionally to the point where I am more or less unable to function properly at times. 

You would think that. 

But that isn’t the case. 


Wasner officially unveiled Flock of Dimes as a solo outing or side project or whatever you want to call it, near the end of 2011, in the form of the glitchy and dizzying track, “Prison Bride,” which was featured on Friends Records 2011, a sprawling compilation cassette of tracks from performers who were either part of the Baltimore-based label’s roster, or loosely associated with it. 

2011 was a huge year, but also a difficult year, for Wasner’s main outlet, Wye Oak. She and bandmate Andy Stack had issued their “breakthrough” third full-length, Civilian, near the top of the year—with the titular track appearing in both a trailer for “The Walking Dead, as well as the in the final scene of an episode of the program’s second season. 

The pair toured relentlessly behind it, being offered more and more opportunities to promote the album to larger audiences, but the seemingly never ending, grueling pacing of being on the road, as well as playing songs from the album night after night took its toll on Stack and Wasner. Wye Oak was maybe not so much at risk of breaking up, but in order to keep going as a band, they needed to drastically reinvent themselves and more importantly, the band’s sound, in order to move forward in a constructive way.

It was easy, at least with Wasner’s first few singles under the moniker, to refer to Flock of Dimes as electronically based or influenced—I hesitate to say it is a far cry from guitar driven music she made with Wye Oak (there was still guitar present), but Flock of Dimes allowed her to push herself into new, creative places in terms of layering synthesizers and programmed drums that often became richer in sound and development the further she went—“Prison Bride” almost sounds like a demo, or sketch, in comparison to the growth and and complexities of one of her other early singles, “Curtain.”

And there is a place where these two projects begin a slow convergence—Wye Oak is still active, though not nearly as prolific as they were during the earliest years of the band. In 2014, they resurfaced with the keyboard-heavy, “guitar-free” Shriek, then managing to find a space where all of their instrumentation, past and present, could exist in a way that made sense with 2018’s The Louder I Call, The Faster it Runs. 

After a period of dormancy, Wasner released her first full-length as Flock of Dimes over five years ago—If You See Me…Say Yes, and the place where both projects sonically pass each other in convergence is that, eventually, Flock of Dimes became much less “electronic” and more organic sounding in its arrangements than it was on Wasner’s earliest material; and Wye Oak is no longer just an indie rock band based around snarling torrents of electric guitar, embracing myriad textural elements within each album. 

I am remiss to refer to Head of Roses as a “pandemic album,” but it is an album that might not have occurred, or if it had occurred, might have turned out completely different, if not for the state of the world over the last year. Wasner, as a songwriter, has never shied away from being personal, but in the past, there has been a shadow of ambiguity, or use of fragmented imagery within her lyrics—Head of Roses, and the impetus for the album, finds her at her most unabashedly personal and, as difficult as it might be, honest with herself; musically, it occupies a fascinating space between an enormous, robust sound and production quality, while still, as much as it is able to, maintains sense of thoughtful intimacy that lends itself to Wasner’s lyrics.


As daunting, or ambitious as I made contrasting two albums, released a decade apart, seem, there were a few moments, before I was able to talk myself out of it completely, where I started to give preliminary thought to how Civilian and Head of Roses could be connected, or rather, what could be used to connect them.

The obvious thing was the number “two.”

Civilian opens with a quickly swirling, though lyrically ominous track, “Two Small Deaths,” which Wasner wrote the night after both Alex Chilton from Big Star died, as well as the surprising news that a distant relative had been murdered. “Both were people I had no personal connection with, she explained in an interview about the album. “They were both distant people who had touched lives that I was close to.”

Head of Roses includes the number two both in its opening track, as well as in the album’s first single. “2 Heads,” which isn’t so much a mission statement or thesis for the album, but more of a self aware prologue that, against heavy vocal layering and manipulation, and a low, rumbling synthesizer, casts Wasner as the protagonist—reflecting, with poetic ambiguity, on what brought her to the point where the rest of the record unfolds, with the implication that there is slightly more of an understanding. “I can see it all now,” she sings in the second verse. “The world beyond my knowing—bodies that I drag around while going through the motions. Devoid of every instinct—the spirit is not willing.”

Musically, “2 Heads” reaches a cacaophic peak of bubbling synthesizers that begin to pulsate in such a way that you, upon initial listen, think it is going to seamlessly lead into the next song. 

It doesn’t.

The album’s second track, and second advance single, “Price of Blue,” is a slow burning, ferocious guitar driven song that would fit right at home within the context of a Wye Oak album. Beginning with a strange voice that echoes very briefly, and based around steady, crunchy percussion, the song is practically overpowered by the searing electric guitar work that runs throughout, as well as Wasner’s voice when she lets it soar during the refrain. 

Lyrically, “Price of Blue” sets the tone, or really begins the thread that connects Head of Roses. “I’m waking up from a dream,” Wasner begins. “I can feel it, but I can’t see. I’ms suffocating the spark of diving you made in me.” 

Reflections in your mirror I’ve become,” she coos in the refrain. “Alone with you—the price of blue.”

Wasner explains that “Price of Blue” is about how we misunderstand one another, and “become so attached to stories that we are unable to see the truth that’s right in front of us. It’s about the invisible mark that another person can leave on your body, heart, and mind, long after their absence.”

It’s too easy to say that Head of Roses is a “break up” record, because it is only so in the traditional sense of that kind of description—that it was written about, and written in the wake of, a relationship that has ended. However, it isn’t an angry, or spiteful record—far from it. In a lengthy New York Times profile published at the time of the album’s release, it explains Wasner’s relationship ended at the beginning of the pandemic, and without other things to distract her, “There was nothing to do but sit with my pain and myself.” To say that Head of Roses is contemplative is putting it mildly—without spite, or anger, it is an honest and insular journey resulting in stark and poignant self-reflection and growth that, surprisingly, in the end, finds resolution. 

The pacing of Head of Roses, and the way Wasner balances the tension and release of those emotions, is immaculate. And following the simmering “Price of Blue,” the album switches its musical direction again with “Two.” A break up album, regardless of how big or hard the feelings within it are, is not something you would ever think to describe as being “whimsical,” but there is a lightness or sense of whimsy to “Two,” thanks to the shuffling, danceable rhythm, the shimmering guitar strums, playful synthesizers, and the surprising appearance of a saxophone and trumpet. 

“Two” is also one of the album’s less emotionally devastating tracks, though Wasner’s lyrics here are no less pensive or introspective than they are anywhere else on Head of Roses. The song is about the multitudes we all contain, and the difficult balance between independence and interdependence—“Can I be one? Can we be two?,” she asks in the song’s infectious refrain. “Can I be for myself? Still be still with you? 


Even with as often as Wasner changes the pacing, or changes the overall tone from song to song, there is strong cohesive nature to the album—the conceit of Head of Roses, as a whole, certainly helps with that, but musically speaking, the ever shifting nature of the soundscape is put together with an effortless grace. 

I think this is thanks in part to the production duties that Wasner shared with Nick Sanborn—one half of the electro-infused pop outfit Sylvan Esso. Sanborn, obviously, works primarily within layers of glitchy synthesizers and drum programming, and if you listened to the last Sylvan Esso album, Free Love, released last summer, you’ll have noticed that Sanborn as a producer and arranger, has a meticulous ear and attention to detail—and that is what carries through the entirety of Head of Roses. There is a warm and rich quality to every song, with each element precisely layered within the mix, with the give and take of the organic instrumentation and Sanborn’s and Wasner’s penchant for electronic flourishes. None of the elements sound of out of place.

While Wasner works within a more lush arrangement on the somber, twangy “Walking,” and the blippy and swooning “One More Hour,” with the insular, solitary nature of the way the album was written, and with the concept holding it together, there are a number of sparse, and at times, downright haunting pieces as the album continues to unfold. 

After the rollicking “Two,” the album pulls itself back to another track that sees Wasner making use of heavy, digital vocal manipulation—“Hard Way” is similar to “2 Heads” in its usage of an undercurrent of synthesizers, while the tender “Lightning” is set against a quivering, gently plucked acoustic guitar, and the album’s titular (and closing) song might be the most musically devastating, with Wasner reaching the only bit of resolution she’s able to over an absolutely heartbreaking piano accompaniment. 

It should be apparent, or at least not be a surprise, at the stark observations Wasner makes throughout Head of Roses. She uses her lyrics as a means of working through the painful end of her relationship, but she intelligently allows them to become an opportunity, or a device, for reflection, both on herself as well as her heartbreak—specifically in the face of the pandemic, and an overwhelming feeling of isolation. “Work—it keeps me busy,” she explains near the end of the somber “Walking. “Longing is my friend. Alone again, alone again—my time, it is my own again.” And while there, it seems like she is attempting to make peace with the change in her life, during the first verse, she conjures difficult imagery that, while ambiguous enough to be open to interpretation, depicts moments from near the end—“We are dead in the water. We are walking just to walk.”

On the contemplative, quiet “Lightning,” Wasner returns to the multitudinous nature she explored earlier in the record, as well as the difficulties in communication, or at least a clear understanding when two people are involved in a relationship—“If you dream, who is it that you see?,” she asks. “‘Cause it isn’t me. When you dressed me in a different skin, I forgot who I am. I watched it happen, but I can’t understand.”

There are moments across Head of Roses where Wasner depicts the real-time emotional rollercoaster, where one minute you are fine, or at least doing as well as you can be with the situation you have found yourself in; other times, less so. “I found out freedom is empty when it’s all you have,” she confesses in the last verse of “Lightning.” And it’s this that she reconciles with the best she can in the album’s final, gorgeous moment. “I was held by seven angels,” she sings on Head of Roses. “Told me I was free to go—I can't help you see the meaning. I can’t tell you what I don’t know.”

You’ll never see how I cried…leave me to learn—love is time.”


As daunting, or ambitious as I made contrasting two albums, released a decade apart, seem, there were a few moments, before I was able to talk myself out of it completely, where I started to give preliminary thought to how Civilian and Head of Roses could be connected, or rather, what could be used to connect them.

The less obvious thing, that revealed itself to me after a few, very careful listens, was the idea of lying.

I refer to “Doubt,” the final track from Civilian as the album’s epilogue because it, in comparison to the songs that came before it, is relatively skeletal in arranging—just Wasner’s haunting, otherworldly voice, pleading over the top of borderline desperately plucked electric guitar. There’s an intimacy to the song—maybe because it’s so sparse, or maybe because of the way it was produced. Maybe it’s because of the lyrics, and the way Wasner sings them—like they are a secret that she is having an internal dilemma about revealing but cannot help but tell you, regardless. 

If you should doubt my heart, remember this—that I would lie to you if I believed it was right to do,” she states, very bluntly, in the opening of the song. And it’s the song’s ending—or the way it ends—that has lingered like a specter for the last 10 years. “What I have learned of you does not assure you bow before my will. But I believed it then—believe it still,” and it’s the way she naturally lets the guitar string plucking slow down and come to a stop, and delivers the final “still” that is so effecting. 

Intentional, or not, a decade later, Wasner explores the idea of being deceitful on “Awake for The Sunries,” Head of Roses’ most stunning moment. 

Here, whether the lying was “right” to do, or not, Wasner concedes that she is a “terrible liar” when she needs it most, on what is probably the album’s most straightforward, lyrically speaking, w/r/t the dissolution of her relationship. And maybe that’s what makes it so devastating to hear—the kind of devastating that lingers with you well after you’ve stopped listening. Like, days later. Nothing is dressed up in shadowy, fragmented metaphors, but the lyrics are no less evocative—they are, perhaps, more so because of that fearless reflection and openness.

There is a terrible, truthful longing to lines in what appears as the refrain to the song—it’s different each time. “I only wanted to know you better,” Warner explains the first time around before remorsefully admitting, “I only thought that I knew you best.” Then, in the second, “Hope is still keeping my head above water ’til the moment before I choke.” 

And that reflecting, in the wake of a relationship ending, can turn dark, or effacing, as it does here—“There is a future where we’re resting easy on the other side of us,” she sings in the final verse. “But I’d rather feel the full wrath of destruction than remember the things I’ve done.” It’s a surprisingly sharp contrast, which she continues with an even starker personal admission as the song heads towards its ending: “I deserve it, the very worst of it. And I deserve it—I know I do.”

And maybe that’s one of the things that contributes to the emotional toll the song takes on you—the kind of thing that is still tugging at you days later, making your eyes well up with tears at inopportune moments. The words themselves, and the way Wasner sings them with conviction, letting her gorgeous, smoky voice rise and fall throughout, with relatively reserved, organic instrumentation tumbling around behind her, creating a thoughtful, gentle bed for this kind of unabashed honesty to rest upon. 


In the liner notes to Head of Roses, near the end, Wasner thanks, “You, for leaving; and for all of the ones that I left.” The album, clearly, is written about the loss of a connection to someone, and the songs are more or less directed at this person, but there is an ambiguity, or an accessibility to the “you” that she addresses throughout. It’s a huge personal statement to be this honest, but Wasner does it with such a beautiful, graceful nature that it still welcomes the listener in, and the ambiguity of the songwriting, or at least who the songs are directed toward, lets someone take these songs and use them as a way to work through their own heartbreak. 

There are a lot of questions that go unanswered on Head of Roses, because Wasner is both just asking them, perhaps rhetorically or perhaps of herself, but also they are directed at someone who is no longer present to respond. “Are we twenty miles from nothing here? Are we anywhere at all?,” she asks on “Walking”; “What is beauty in a world like this?,” from “One More Hour”; or “And you called my name—and I came. How? There is no question,” from the song, aptly titled “No Question.” 

There are a lot of questions that go unanswered on Head of Roses, and maybe they are questions, or quizzical statements that do not need to be answered. There are albums where there is little, if any, resolution at the end, but the final thought Wasner lands on here is “Love is time,” though that is juxtaposed against, just a few lines early, “ You’ll never see how I cried.” It isn’t explicitly said in the album, though it should be implied, but Wasner, in her profile from The New York Times said, “music might be the art form that is best able to get around those barriers and reach us where we need to be healed.” 

As emotionally devastating as it is capable of being, and as pensive of a tone as Jenn Wasner has set with Head of Roses, it is an album that is truly remarkable, and something to behold. Restless, beautiful, and haunting, there are moments where, musically, it is nearly jubilant sounding, only to be contrasted against the delicate, yet visceral treatment of the human condition. Rarely are albums this personal, this utterly flawless, and this thought provoking to the point of lingering rumination long after the record has stopped spinning. 

1- A quick aside to mention how much I loathe the expression “Loser Edition.” I get that it’s a joke—the Sub Pop “Loser Editions” are special, limited variants pressed at the same time as the standard release of the album, and that only some kind of “loser” would obsess over buying that specific version of a record. But still. Like, it doesn’t make me feel great.

Head of Roses is out now in myriad formats on Sub Pop.