McIlwee’s latest full-length: Wicca Phase Springs Eternal offers the musician’s most finely honed and welcoming songs to date, but it’s more than just a self-titled album–it’s a portal, an entryway into an entire world.
As 2019 merged into 2020, the former Tigers Jaw member and Gothboiclique founder was looking to step away from the hyper-concentrated melancholic Trap of 2019’s Suffer On, and set out to breathe fresh life into the WPSE project by creating a broader sonic landscape. “Suffer On and a lot of the music I was making around that time was just so emotionally heavy,” McIlwee explains. “It felt like I was putting a lot on the listener and on myself. So I started thinking about early Wicca Phase and the world building I was doing–I was just throwing things at the wall then, but now I have ten more years of songwriting experience. I realized I wanted to just keep developing a depth to Wicca Phase, I didn’t want to just scratch the surface.”
Inspired by the musings of ‘60s and ‘70s British folk bands such as Fairport Convention and Pentangle, McIlwee hunkered down in the Western Catskills and Abington Township in Pennsylvania, absorbing the scenery and trying to translate the beauty of his surroundings into an immersive experience. He began to expand the WPSE lore and fashion a more colorful and descriptive body of work–one where he still wears his heart on his sleeve, but now all of the longing and heartache exist in a vivid space that’s strikingly real and otherworldly all at once. The sound of Wicca Phase began to grow as well: never wanting the project to be defined by a genre, McIlwee worked closely with longtime collaborator Darcy Baylis, as well as newcomer Ben Greenberg, to continue to bring new styles and moods into WPSE. Looking to incorporate his love of EDM, trance, and house sounds, McIlwee and co. created an amalgam of ‘80s and ‘90s breakbeat style drums, modernistic 808s, shimmering synths, and washes of reverberating guitar and organic bass.
The more McIlwee wrote, the deeper he went into the universe he was creating, and his heartfelt songwriting transformed into a moving and breathing sonic display of the fine line between reality and mysticism. “It felt like this could be a starting point if you don’t know what Wicca Phase is about,” he says. “You’re still getting the melodrama that’s in all my lyrics, but you’re also getting this description of the world–what it looks like, what it feels like. Why wouldn’t that be self-titled?”
McIlwee makes his intentions loud and clear from the start: Wicca Phase Springs Eternal’s latest album, Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, opens with a song called “Wicca Phase Springs Eternal.” In cinematic fashion, the track’s three distinct movements draw the listener into the themes, settings, and sounds that permeate the record. McIlwee’s instantly recognizable baritone voice croons over bubbling synth arpeggiations and thumping beats, describing a blend of the natural (a lake, pines, wild horses), supernatural (magic, mystery, a tesseract), and unexpectedly mundane (a Subaru, a puffer jacket, a Dodgers hat), offering just enough grounding to leave the listener wondering if they’re in our world or on some other plane that only resembles it. “Sometimes when I’m writing I’ll be off in the fifth dimension and realize that I need to bring it back to the real world,” McIlwee says. “I’m not interested in music that’s totally ethereal–I want to relate to music and I want people to be able to relate to my music, too.”
That inescapable emotional core and McIlwee’s sincere nature still resonate throughout Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, but this time it’s stronger, imbued with a new wisdom. On “Farm,” he sings “My love lives on a plane, and when it presents itself overwhelmed and overtaken, silent and sacred, total, unknowable in shape,” his voice calling out into the night through driving breakbeats and pulsing synth lines before being swallowed up by his own echoes. Elsewhere, McIlwee and Zola Jesus duet on the fingerpicked outlaw ballad “Mystery, I’m Tied To You,” , while “One Silhouette” is Wicca Phase Springs Eternal’s version of a dance song, its pounding four-on-the-floor beat colliding into hazy slide guitar and McIlwee’s mournful hooks to conjure up an imaginary collaboration between Robert Smith and Underworld.
On “Who’s Watching Me,” a trip hop beat and ghostly keyboards create surprising uplift, like the moon shining through the clouds as McIlwee describes his arrival to “the doorway of desire and intrigue.” It’s a moment that sums up what Wicca Phase Springs Eternal does best: capturing both the romanticism and inscrutability of life’s biggest feelings. “I probably say the word ‘mystery’ a hundred times on this record,” McIlwee laughs. “That’s what I’m trying to bottle up–this idea of something that’s hard to know, but enticing. For whatever reason, my natural strength is writing about emotions, though my interest is always more in describing the moment and describing the intangible. I definitely will keep singing about heartbreak, but I want to do it in a different way.”
McIlwee’s devotion to traversing the unknown–both emotional and extra-dimensional–is palpable and contagious. When he sings “I spent hours trying to tap into the mystery” on the eponymous opening track, you believe him, and are also reminded of what a rare joy it is to be fully captivated by a piece of art that’s this richly detailed, while still leaving so many questions unanswered, so many twists left to be discovered with every listen. When Wicca Phase Springs Eternal ends, you find yourself compelled to play it again–to enter the portal and once more find out where it leads.