For a cheekily suave album from a band named Office Culture, Big Time Things is pretty down-to-earth. Where 2019’s A Life of Crime was a collection of vignettes from the graffitied alleys and grimy back rooms of a hard-knock city, the Brooklyn quartet’s latest finds poetry in the benign challenges of normal adulthood. Over sophistipop arrangements peppered with strings and horns, singer-songwriter (and occasional Pitchfork contributor) Winston Cook-Wilson tells stories so acutely ruffled that they take on an ironic liminality. Though the band can sometimes come across a bit disgruntled, the album takes on a flippant, carefree attitude. It would make a charming soundtrack for a rundown lounge with velvet walls and stiff pours.
A weary, sardonic humor underlines Cook-Wilson’s writing on Big Time Things. Past Office Culture albums were more plot-driven, but here the lyrics lean into Seinfeldian normalcy. “Things were bad then/But they’re better now,” Cook-Wilson sings on the wry, anticlimactic chorus of “Things Were Bad.” “Elegance” contrasts nuanced, self-deprecating verses with a chorus themed around altruism and simplicity, an emotional duality that hovers above the record. The most memorable moment comes on the title track: “Stop, I feel nervous/I smell rust…Wondering if it’s you I should trust,” he repeats in a deadpan refrain. “Seems like big time things/Are bothering both of us.” The hook calls to mind an uncomfortable dinner with a romantic partner, quietly knowing something is wrong but playing dumb to avoid conflict. The tonal ambiguity of Cook-Wilson’s delivery allows the song to sound at once dejected and affirming.
Steely Dan is the most obvious touchstone for the cosmopolitan, freewheeling instrumentals on Big Time Things, as well as Kaputt-era Destroyer, late-1960s Scott Walker, and even Haruomi Hosono’s Pacific. On “A Word,” chintzy bass slaps complement shuffling drums and loungey horns. The warm strings on “Little Reminders” flesh out a complex, deconstructed waltz. Opener “Suddenly” gradually morphs from blocky funk into swirling baroque pop. “You were a road I could travel on/Till opportunity knocked at the gate,” Cook-Wilson croons over sinewy violin and cello before the arrangement disintegrates into a wiry guitar solo. It plays like the hypothetical product of a seasoned jazz band operating within the drab surreality that defines Paul Thomas Anderson films like Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love.
At times, the group can sound like they’re trolling by writing cuts this smooth. Over the course of the album’s 44 minutes, Cook-Wilson and his collaborators blend compassion and frustration so seamlessly that it’s hard to tell whether they’re about to start laughing or crying. Office Culture is a fixture in a sphere of bookish New York City rock bands like Adeline Hotel and Wilder Maker; their lackadaisical, almost wine-drunk disposition is what sets them apart. Landing in the gray area between stoicism and comedy, Big Time Things offers the clearest snapshot yet of their fascinating dichotomy.
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