Sunday, March 6, 2016

Emerson Hart - Beauty in Disrepair

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really moved from the “quality, not quantity” mantra of listening to new music to…well, the “quality and quantity” mantra of listening to new music. In this year’s first quarter alone, I listened to 76 new albums, many of which I loved enough to drop into regular rotation. That’s not how it used to be, though. Back when I was in high school, I devoted a near tunnel-vision level of focus to finding the “life soundtrack” albums, the records that I would fall in love with and play multiple times a day, every day, for months on end. In the fall of 2007, my junior year of high school and a very exciting time in my life, I had probably five different albums that were hitting that particular spot for me. One was Jimmy Eat World’s Chase This Light, the follow-up to one of my favorite records ever and a release I’d been anticipating with endless zeal for years. Another was Matt Nathanson’s Some Mad Hope, a record I bought somewhat on a whim while on a class trip and quickly fell in love with. Springsteen’s Magic and the Once soundtrack were in rotation as well, but the fifth LP from that season – and arguably the one I connected with the most at the time – was Cigarettes & Gasoline, the first solo album from Emerson Hart of the 90s one hit wonder band, Tonic.

For whatever reason, I’ve never really connected with the albums that Tonic made, either in the 90s when they were sort of popular (thanks to “If You Could Only See,” a song that frankly sounds like it couldn’t have possibly come out in any year besides 1997) or in the 2000s when they were distinctly unpopular. But right from the moment I heard Cigarettes & Gasoline, I knew it was different. Here was a record that was special and distinct from those made by the other “washed up” former 90s stars (most of whom, I should say, I still listen to anyway). Hart had a knack for melodies that put him in the ranks of pop-rock’s finest, but the album’s charms weren’t simply related to its musical memorability. On the contrary, Cigarettes & Gasoline hit hard because, at its core, it was an album that Hart had written to deal with the death of his father. Not every song was an overt eulogy, with only the slow-burn closing title track directly broaching the subject by name. But other tunes on the record, from the soaring nostalgia of “Flyin’” to the elegiac “Friend to a Stranger,” pulsed with the same unendurable pain and unimpeachable memory, and the record has continued to resonate with me through the years because of those weighty themes.

For all of the reasons laid forth above, I was elated when Beauty in Disrepair, the long-overdue sophomore solo record from Hart, arrived in my inbox this past winter. Here was an album I’d been waiting to hear for six and a half years, and in a time when most bands release new records every year or two, that wait felt like eternity. In fact, it had been so long and I had built Cigarettes & Gasoline up to be such a legacy record in mind that, on my first listens, Beauty in Disrepair failed to make any sort of connection. This was the record that I’d been waiting for since I was a junior in high school? This collection for slick, faintly generic major-label pop rock tunes? And indeed, the songs on Beauty in Disrepair aren’t nearly as weighty as they were last time around. Luckily though, Hart’s gift for melody is absolutely still intact, and from the propulsive lead-off track “The Best That I Can Give” to the wistful pre-release single “To Be Young,” the best songs here feel like old friends from the get-go.

On Cigarettes & Gasoline, the best tracks were the ballads, most of which I mentioned above: the title track, “Flyin’,” “Vanity,” “Green Hill Race for California,” etc. Here, things get turned around a bit, with the finest moments coming in the form of big sing-along pop songs. “The Best That I Can Give” is one of them, and it’s hardly surprising that the song is Hart’s most promising play for radio recognition since Tonic’s early days. The rousing “Hurricane” is another, with a gang vocal refrain that pushes the tune toward the heavens. Hart’s songwriting may not connect here quite like it did on the first solo record, but he’s definitely improved as a vocalist, and these songs work almost solely because of his pristine high tenor voice. Hell, even when the lyrical messages are pretty generic and run-of-the-mill (as on the closing carpe diem hymn that is “The Lines”), Hart’s impassioned, heart-on-the-sleeve vocal delivery holds everything together.

The lyrics, though, are definitely the most frustrating aspect of Beauty in Disrepair. Perhaps it’s because I’ve gotten older or maybe because this record doesn’t have the same powerful central theme that its predecessor did, but there are a few too many occasions here where it seems as if Hart is just phoning it in on the lyrical front. Take “Mostly Grey,” an otherwise lovely adult contemporary ballad that would probably have done great on the radio circa 2003. The song works thanks to lush instrumentation and an interesting chord progression, straddling a line between major and minor that allows the music to feel in turns both downtrodden and uplifting. The lyrics, though, seem only to speak in broad generalizations and emotive clichés, and that fact greatly diminishes the song’s lasting value. Something like “I used to know the taste of tears/I found a way to sell my fears” isn’t necessarily a bad line by itself, but without the specificity that made Cigarettes & Gasoline such an exceptional and personal record, it sort of feels like an autopilot moment with no real meaning - even though the song and the record were allegedly written in the wake of Hart's divorce.

But Hart is far from a weak lyricist. He proved that on Cigarettes & Gasoline when he was writing emotionally harrowing songs about kite-flying nostalgia and “trolling the ocean” for the soul of his father, and he proves it here whenever he delves a bit beyond the surface. On “Hallway,” for instance, an heartbreaking tune about living life through the photographs hanging on the wall, he knocks it out of the park. Still, after such a stellar solo debut, not to mention the six and a half years it took to get a follow-up, it’s hard not to wish that Hart gave us a more substantial window into his life with this record. The release materials for Beauty in Disrepair include a quote from Hart saying that the album was “born out of stuff I don’t want anyone else to say,” but too often on this record, he doesn’t seem ready to say those things himself either. It’s an enjoyable album thanks to the melodies and vocals alone, but it only rarely transcends mere prettiness, which is a shame coming from a songwriter I hold in such high esteem.

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