Empathy by definition is the ability to understand and share feelings of another. During times of stress, one might find relief in sharing their feelings. Human empathy suggests that the listener should comfort the speaker by showing their understanding and ability to relate. The speaker can better grasp their inner emotions through the outward expression of their thoughts; but what can a listener gain? La Dispute’s front man, Jordan Dreyer, uses his experience of listening to others to guide himself through his own personal struggle and to understand the true meaning of suffering on Wildlife.
Across La Dispute’s previous work, Dreyer struggles to find release from his past lover’s grasp on his life. Until Wildlife, Dreyer took this as tortuous suffering and expressed his pain through his poetry, but never found resolve. Wildlife is Dreyer’s personal breakthrough as we see him chronicle his own suffering through comparisons of the stories of emotional pain that he comes across first hand. Battling the concept of his own suffering, Dreyer balances the stories of others as well as his own musings on the pain of letting go. The songs are segmented by Dreyer’s letters to a lover, each letter further diving into his understanding of his situation. This slow buildup of emotion through the stories of others, as well as his own suffering, leads to a devastating climax for Dreyer and the listener.
What’s most impressive about the writing is Dreyer’s ability to give secondhand stories poetry. Not only are these stories given emotional depth and immersive arcs, but Dreyer also manages to tie each story into his own personal dilemma. Some of the stories Dreyer recalls are mundane and simple, but when told by Dreyer, he gives them emotional depth. “St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church Blues” is the story of a beaten down, abandoned church that Dreyer passes every so often. But the story of the church could never be that simple to Dreyer. The church, a beacon for hope, is left in ruins, leaving Dreyer to ponder whether there’s hope for himself if there’s no hope for something so divine.
Dreyer’s consistent use of analogies to his own life keep observations like this church from being dismissed as unimportant. Other stories such as “King Park” are largely climactic, even with Dreyer’s poetic diction. “King Park” tells the tale of a drive-by shooting gone wrong. Interestingly, Dreyer chooses not to take the slow pitch on lyricism here. Dryer chooses to place himself at the scene as a ghost. What seemed to be a strange choice of story-telling ends up being arguably the most compelling story on the album. Dreyer uses his ghostly presence to watch over the crime scene and the events that follow. He even takes time to follow the witnesses to their homes to see how this event affected them.
This obsession with seeing what the human consciousness is capable of is a constant theme for Dreyer’s writing. The stories he recalls are cathartic experiences, further pushing his willingness to let go. These stories become a sort of addiction for Dreyer, as he obsessively calls for people to share their own experiences with him on the song “All Our Bruised Bodies and the Whole Heart Shrinks.” This seems like the epilogue for the album, which still could have summed up an inspirational listening experience, but one final track ends the album on a cliffhanger. The final song on the album, “You and I in Unison,” essentially contradicts his breakthrough in “A Broken Jar.” Even after deciding not to hold onto the pieces of his relationship, Dreyer is haunted by the memories of his past lover. It originally struck me as a relapse into what he had worked so hard to get rid of, but what completes the theme of the album is not that he relapses, but that he will always feel pain.
Your experiences of suffering can never be resolved by the comparison to someone else’s. To empathize with someone who has suffered is to understand that they’ve learned to live with their past. The stories told to Dreyer aren’t told by people who have let go; they just live with it the best they can, and no matter how much you forgive or how much hope you put into the future, the past will always haunt you.