It’s been so long since we’ve heard from Charles Bissell. A self-effacing perfectionist to a fault, Bissell has obstructed attempts to release any new music from his cult New Jersey outfit the Wrens since their 2003 album, The Meadowlands. Two years after the remaining Wrens members released their post-Meadowland missive as Aeon Station, Bissell has finally made his long awaited return as Car Colors, with a first single and the promise of a full album. His first song in two decades, “Old Death,” offers an intimate explanation for time lost, taking us along on his post-Wrens life via fragmented images of midlife ennui.
If The Meadowlands’ wistful penultimate track “13 Months in 6 Minutes” covered a year in a tumultuous relationship, “Old Death” endeavors to traverse a lifetime in seven. There are references to the acrimonious breakup of his band (“(If the) Meadow-lends itself to war”), his desk day job, his battle with cancer, his work producing like minded indie rock bands, all annotated by year in his lyric sheet, with at least one line pinned to the minute. Even if the proper nouns—his boat; Wildwood, New Jersey; esoteric business shorthands—remain blurry, his washed-up blues have always felt universal.
Bissell has called the song a “sequel” to the Wrens’ last album, and from the opening guitar melody, “Old Death” recalls the understated ornamentation of The Meadowlands. Veteran Wrens fans know to take a Bissell album announcement with a heavy grain of salt, but it’s maddeningly easy to imagine a full album from these instrumental episodes: There’s the compact guitar riff that enters as Bissell quotes a 1901 headline from the Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger, the chiming arpeggio that enters just before the song drops out about halfway, the towering guitar solo that sends it into overdrive. Through it all, “Old Death” never fully makes contact with the Earth, pulling back just before it might crash into something resembling a chorus. The song feels endless, like there’s a fully realized world that persists even after Bissell’s final note rings out.