Wicca Phase Springs Eternal—34-year-old songwriter Adam McIlwee, who has been setting precedents for emo music since 2005—has spent the past few years playing Red Dead Redemption 2. Well, that, and Fire Pro Wrestling World, which is “just, like, a wrestling simulator,” he tells me over Zoom.
But Rockstar Games’ wild west simulacrum is what motivated much of McIlwee’s fantastic and introspective self-titled album (released June 2, with tour dates scheduled for this summer). It opened him to nature’s stoic splendor, too.
Immediately, he was pulled to the parts of Red Dead that didn’t feel like they had any of humanity’s soot on it—the “western side of the map,” he says, so “[near the settlement] Strawberry, and north of Strawberry.”
“If you’re listening to the record and you want to know where it’s set,” he says, with some self-consciousness, “a lot of it is in that area—the western side of the map. In the game, those areas are naturally beautiful. It’s not like you’re in Annesburg, or Van Horn, where they’re depressed mining towns.”
From his shyness, I can tell that McIlwee doesn’t necessarily consider himself a “gamer.” Really, he insists, RDR2 is what he’s been stuck on for years. It has a cold open world and what feels like an infinite playtime (physical copies came with two discs, and completionists can expect to put the game down after about 179 hours), and, at first, it overwhelmed him.
“I just thought it was huge and daunting,” he says. But after a round of encouragement from friends, “I blew through the first couple of missions on my first playthrough, and then I felt comfortable enough where I could start exploring on my own, and that is really where the fun of the game is for me.”
Otherwise, RDR2 “is defiantly slow-paced, exuberantly unfun,” Kirk Hamilton wrote in Kotaku’s 2018 review; it has “the most bracingly beautiful depictions of nature [...], and is happy to juxtapose that beauty with the ugly, violent human ambition that will eventually subjugate and destroy it.”
That tension, the gum between aggressive catharsis and splendor, infiltrated Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, but it’s also present in all of McIlwee’s music since high school.
Early Tigers Jaw, the pop-punk band McIlwee founded alongside current member Ben Walsh in 2005, is pervaded by the same indulgent, dark chocolate sadness. Goth Boi Clique—the emo rap collective McIlwee started nearly a decade later, a temporary home for eternally influential musician Lil Peep—also carries scintillating synth in their songs like a scythe, with lyrics consumed by dreaming, scars, and ghosts.
Amid greedy black plumes of campfire smoke, and the all-natural iris of its butter-colored sun, Red Dead, too, invokes things beyond feeling and sight. Sometimes, cloudy ghost trains gasp in the middle of the night, and incomprehensible taxidermy hangs on a stranger’s cabin walls.
“The deer all havе names and that cats are aware of the soul,” McIlwee decides on the misty, trip-hop song “Twilight Miracle.” “I’m human and want what I want.”
Like RDR2, McIlwee likes unbolting the box and releasing occultism’s hot breath onto his music, which is otherwise rooted in painful reality, because it “lets you know that sort of strangeness exists in the world, but it’s not what the world is about.”
You can Google anything else you want to know, he says. But “stuff like the occult”—“Libra, my ascendant sign / [...] The romance of the riverbank,” he sings on mission statement “Mystery I’m Tied to You”—“the answers [...] require an understanding of human nature that isn’t able to be Googled,” he says. “There’s a lot of room for questions and interpretations but no hard answers, and that is so appealing to me. These sorts of things are like forms of escapism that exist within our reality.”
And, like music, Red Dead is a pocket of ideal life, representing and imitating it selectively. Nevertheless, like a rough patch of forest, a digital environment is still one you might “get lost inside of,” McIlwee says.
“I’m making largely electronic music,” he continues, “you can think of that as the ‘graphics’ of a song. The content is the story of the lyrics—you can imprint whatever kind of lyrics you want to shape the environment of the song, and it creates [...] a struggle.”
Sent searching for big, deep things by Red Dead’s sublime microcosm and his own intrinsic commitment to locking pinkies with the unknown, McIlwee hopes that Wicca Phase Springs Eternal expresses that “under the right circumstances, we can go beyond the limits of [...] what we know as reality [...] and experience life in a more wonderful way.”
“The other takeaway might be that, you know, you can be a city boy and find joy in riding a horse,” he says.