Sophomore, economics and mathematics major
New York has long been a city of interesting cultural blending. Something about the metropolis, especially its less-expensive outer boroughs, attracts from faraway places like Uruguay the kind of youth like Juan Wauters who seek to take part in something larger than their hometowns. More than ten years removed from his arrival in the city, Wauters’ second solo album Who Me? is dedicated to life in his new home turf of Queens. Youthfully straightforward in his approach, life through Wauters’ eyes is uncomplicated in its complexity. He is along for the ride, interpreting the experience through his music as if communicating with himself to make sense of the world. In this way, Who Me? feels made for his own use and serendipitously shared with the public.
“En Mi” opens the album as a wonderfully understated, sleepily surf-rock tune set to Spanish lyrics. Wauters’s nasally tone and distinctive Uruguayan accent add an idiosyncratic spin that contribute to the loveably amateur feel of the album. Further along, standout track “Woodside, Queens” may be a contender for song of the year. Its melody, guitar and structure are infectious in their simplicity. On this track especially it sounds as if Wauters moved from Uruguay, heard Bob Dylan on the radio, and decided rightly that if Dylan could be a singer, he could, too. Indeed, comparisons have been drawn to many heroes of 1960s and ‘70s New York, including the Velvet Underground (in their tamer moods), although these may be premature. Seemingly floating along outside of scrutiny and criticism, Wauters carries a delicate and playful tone throughout the album. He’s even far enough from self-serious to include an album outro of himself amateurishly rapping along to ‘90s-esque beats, a moment at the end that departs so charmingly from the preceding songs that it feels like a backstage glimpse into Wauters’ mind and personality.
One might be tempted to question the lack of depth on the album: most of the songs are quite short, utilize few chords supported by basic instrumentation, cycle through simple structures and are set to uncomplicated lyrics. However, Wauters creates an album that is simultaneously simple and complex; no small feat. Peeling back the layers and paying close attention to the whole message is rewarding. Starting with the album title, Who Me?, an exercise in self-discovery is hinted at from the outset. It’s as if the listener has posed a question, and Wauters is startled at the invitation to explain himself. After all, it is daunting to imagine that “the public” is listening; Wauters makes clear in interviews that he is increasingly aware of the listener and seeks to make music that is singular in its accessibility. This interplay, between personal understanding and relating to a larger audience, drives the album. It is no less than a journey of self-discovery, and communication of self, to which Wauters has invited us along.
Often the lyrics are deceptively simple, sharing perceptive observations and ideas. On “I Was Well,” Wauters accuses someone (perhaps himself) of giving in to the modern capitalist plug to fill an empty life: “You got a job to stay busy and don’t think about who you’d be if you didn’t have to work.” A layer of ambiguity is added by the bilingual moments; with the Spanish songs comes lyrical masking. Wauters elaborated interestingly in an interview: “sometimes I write in Spanish when I’m dealing with themes that I don’t want the majority of people to understand.” When he does want people to understand, his lyrics are refreshingly direct. Standout statement piece “This Is I” borders on spoken-word and straightforwardly explores the intricate ideas of identity, influence and independence. “Who Me?” Wauters asks at the beginning of the album. “This Is I,” he replies firmly toward the end.
Overall, this refreshingly simple album is as rewarding as it is pleasant to listen to. As much as the cover photo of Wauters standing on the hood of a car, holding up traffic on a bridge with Queens in the background, it is an ambitious self-portrait. On Who Me?, this sense of exploration and complexity delivered so modestly is the understated talent of Juan Wauters.