Laika is an exhausting EP. Skeletal, void of meat, it strips Wil Wagner down to his cracked bones, and it’ll do the same to anyone who listens to it. It doesn’t come with any padding or cushioning. Once you’re done with it – or way before then, even – you’ll be feeling bruised, sucker punched and bereft of all your oxygen. And while I’m churning out these body-related analogies, I’ll finish with this: It took Wagner a lot of guts to spill his guts.
At its core, Laika is a soliloquy, hinged upon the stinging lyricism present from start to finish. You’d be forgiven for forgetting that the EP even features any instrument. Wagner strums a wiry, bitter-sounding guitar; there are spates of accompaniments in the form of light percussion, backing vocals and a harmonica, but they do nothing to distract or soften the blow. Quite frankly, the instrumentation here isn’t important at all. The vocals pull you in sharply and aggressively, not to pummel you into submission, but to desperately plea for attention. At first, the Australian accent is peculiar and alien, but you’ll find fairly quickly that it adds a distinct personality to the record, reminding you that the words you are hearing have come from a real person who isn’t doing anything to shelter or blur his identity.
On top of the earnest beauty inherent in lines such as ‘Woke up next to a pile of rat shit / Feeling like a pile of rat shit’ and ‘I’ll always have your ink under my skin’, the delivery is what will end up forcing the hairs on the back of your neck to stand. Wagner bellows, angry at himself, and he laments, confessing timidly his faults. At times, he forces as many words as he can into one line, adding to the stream-of-consciousness feel and the viscosity of just what is being said.
The EP’s oft-touted standout, the title track Laika, is what separates Wagner from every other confessional singer-songwriter. Contrasting from the other tracks, it sees Wagner taking the role of Laika the Soviet space dog, the first animal to orbit the Earth. What starts as a peculiar change of course quickly morphs into one of the most heart-wrenching songs you’re ever likely to hear. “I don’t understand, cause I’m not as smart as them / But even a parachute would have shown that they cared.” As painfully sad as the subject matter might be, of the helpless but willing dog further from home than any animal has ever been, it does beg the question of whether it is possibly analogical as far as themes of unconditional love and subservience go.
When all is said and done, you’ll be hard pressed not to just sit in silence once the EP is over. It certainly deals a tough hand. At its conclusion, you’re left not just chilled at the sentiments of Wagner and his overwhelmingly open heart-pourings, but also in admiration. He is the same as most city-dwellers his age, he just has the courage to display his shortcomings honestly and unabashedly. Just as you might start to question why he’d be willing to do such a thing, the EP closes with “…and I sing these songs, because without them, I wouldn’t be here.” It’s so bittersweet and difficult to listen to without squirming and starting to sweat. You’ll just want to give Wagner a hug.