Head of Roses, the sophomore album from Jenn Wasner’s solo project Flock of Dimes, delivers an intimate, 40-minute record that seamlessly blends earnest indie rock with digital pop. Wasner, best known as the lead singer and guitarist of Wye Oak, describes the album as a journey about “learning to take responsibility for the parts of things that are mine, even when I’m in a lot of pain through some behavior or action of someone else.” Written and composed during the early months of the pandemic while nursing a broken heart, Head of Roses is a breakup album that manages to encapsulate the self-reflective loneliness of extended isolation.
While some songs incorporate both electronic and bedroom pop notes, for the most part the album alternates between guitar-forward and synth-focused songs. In the stripped-down electronic opener “2 Heads,” Wasner’s double-tracked voice is juxtaposed alongside shimmering synths that rise and fall together. The edge of raw emotion in her quavering voice is softened by dreamy electronica, striking a balance that is found in much of the album.
Lyrically speaking, Head of Roses is an exploration of the fact that we can experience great emotional pain while simultaneously inflicting it upon others. Wasner’s enunciation on many songs is a bit muddy, so listeners may struggle to understand the exact words she’s singing. But much like the incoherent lyrics found in groups like the Cocteau Twins, Wasner’s emotionally impactful delivery communicates the feelings of her songs, even if you can’t quite make out what she’s saying.
“Price of Blue,” at nearly six and a half minutes, is the album’s best in showcasing Wasner’s guitar-playing chops. Although Wasner has expressed reluctance in accepting praise for her shredding abilities, the song’s hazy guitar riffs make it easy to understand why Reverend created a signature guitar for her in 2016. The last two minutes of “Price of Blue” are a purely instrumental blend of electric and acoustic guitar that telegraph the anguish and angst of the song.
But Head of Roses is not an album of pure angst. It also delves into the process of healing heartbreak. On “Two” Jenn Wasner contemplates the difficulties of maintaining an independent identity in a relationship. “Can I be one, can we be two/ Can I be for myself/ Still be still with you,” she asks. The song’s lilting synths combined with Wasner’s almost cheery tone convey the feeling of calm acceptance.
While Flock of Dimes primarily trades in dream-pop, a couple of the album’s songs take on some country flair. On “Walking,” Wasner adopts the tone of calm acceptance from “Two,” but with a touch more sadness: “Work it keeps me busy/ Longing is my friend/ Alone again, alone again/ My time it is my own again.” And on “Awake for the Sunrise,” she again flirts with a twangy guitar refrain. Although the song is touted as a straightforward country ballad, it comes off more like a La Croix of a country song—with just a hint of perceptible country flavor.
Wasner has been making music for well over a decade, and credits this experience as allowing her to feel more comfortable creating simpler, straightforward songs. Despite the known intentionality behind some of the more pared-down tracks, a couple don’t quite hit the mark. “Hard Way” pairs bouncing synths and pleasantly subdued vocals, but the song’s simple conjunct melody becomes repetitive and grating. A fuzzy, discordant guitar break provides some relief to the tedious up-and-down of the primary synths, but it doesn’t provide the release needed to balance out the song. The title track, “Head of Roses,” suffers from a similarly oversimplified musical arrangement, but with the repetitive melody played out on piano instead of synths.
“Lightning” is a more successfully pared-down song. Showcasing Wasner’s vocal range alongside a simple guitar, it demonstrates that she has a voice that’s clear and powerful enough to stand on its own. The use of double-tracked backup vocals and lyrics, such as, “I found out/ Freedom is empty/ When it’s all you have,” give the song the haunted quality that’s found throughout the album.