Saturday, May 28, 2016

"Will you disrupt this pattern from starting again?" How The Hotelier learn to take life's punches on 'Goodness'

There's a moment in the middle of "Opening Mail for My Grandmother," the standout track from the Hotelier's brand new album Goodness, where the band momentarily drops out, leaving Christian Holden alone for just a brief instant. "I'm coming for you," Holden sings. Already, the song is an eye of the storm amidst an emotive swirl of a record—the album's truest "ballad," and perhaps its only one. It's also the moment on the record that most breaks me in half, not necessarily because I can understand or perfectly interpret all of the words Holden is throwing at us. After all, Holden has always written in dense poetry, and Goodness finds them at their most artsy and impressionistic.

Rather, the song hits me because it captures the acceptance of knowing that someone you love is going to die. It may not be tomorrow, or next week, or even this year, but "Opening Mail for My Grandmother" is about coming to terms with the brevity of life. That might sound depressing, and the song itself is heartbreaking—at least to someone like me, who lost a grandparent recently. However, "Opening Mail" is ultimately a great song because it manages to fit uplift into the frame. The final lines of the song are the most beautiful, with Holden singing "They're keeping your space there, they're dying for you/We'll sing your good graces when they come for you/But until that day's here, I'm coming for you" in a striking lower register. The message is clear: cherish the moments with the people you love while you still can, because eventually, they run out.

That message is also more or less the theme of Goodness—or at least, it's the version of the theme that resonates with me most strongly. The basic idea I've taken from this album over the past week—and one that has been reinforced by album reviews or interviews with the band—is that goodness in life can be fleeting. Again, that statement might sound depressing, the perfect fodder for an album from the new torchbearers of the "emo" mantle. But think about it: how many things in life, good or bad, last forever? Friendships can fade; love stories can reach premature conclusions; the people we love can pass away into an afterlife we know nothing about. If you're lucky, you get to hold onto the goodness in your life for long, uninterrupted periods. If you're unlucky, you never get enough goodness.

On their last record, the Hotelier seemed like people lodged firmly in the latter category. 2014's Home, Like NoPlace Is There, was a masterful snapshot of a life where everything seems to be going wrong. Depression, abuse, suicide, death, and heartbreak hung over that record like taunting specters, standing perpetual guard. The record is only 36 minutes and nine songs long, but to press the play button or drop the needle is to accept that you are about to visit an intense emotional place. For me, that place is somewhere I can only visit every so often. As much as I love Home—and as proud as I was to write about it when AbsolutePunk ranked it as the best album of 2014—it's a record I have a hard time calling a favorite because of how harrowing it is.

I could never truly relate to Home, at least not in the way a lot of other listeners did. From the first time I heard it, I knew it was the kind of album that could come along and save you if you found it at the right time; the kind of album that could pull you through a rough patch in your life and make you feel like everything would somehow be okay again. Needless to say, that unnamable quality helped Home earn classic status in our scene, joining albums from the likes of Brand New and Jimmy Eat World. For me, though, it was more of a memory trip—a look back at the moments from my own life where I'd needed music to get me through. It wasn't something that was going to earn soundtrack status for me in 2014, the year where I married the love of my life and made a big reach to make the goodness in my own life as permanent as possible.

Goodness is at once both more and less accessible. On one hand, the album is at least partially a "love album." It serves up less of an emotional side hook than its predecessor, providing a journey that—while still melancholy—still feels ultimately uplifting. On the other hand, the songs on Goodness are less immediate than the ones from Home. There's still plenty to sing along to here, from the near-anthemic "Goodness, Pt. 2" to "You in This Light," which echoes with a vibe of early Jimmy Eat World. Even "Opening Mail," with its elegantly circuitous melody, makes you want to hum in harmony. There's nothing as "catchy" here as "The Scope of All This Rebuilding," though, or as immediately lyrically striking as "An Introduction to the Album."

The great thing about Goodness, though, is that it continues to unfold and envelope you as you continue to listen. With an impeccable sequencing that yields a near-hypnotic quality to the flow of the record, Goodness offers a journey that, while not nearly as intense as the one provided by Home, still feels remarkably complete. Once again, I can't claim to have parsed the meaning of Holden's lyrics completely. I don't think I will have after 100 listens, either, so I certainly haven't managed it after 10. Still, there are hugely resonant moments throughout this record, images of characters finding goodness and then letting it go, of reaching for love and then surrendering. "My eyes greet hers and hers do mine/And then this room becomes her shrine," Holden sings on "Piano Player. "Was kind of banking on a future that'd be involving you, but I couldn't ask this of you," Holden intones on "Two Deliverances." "I can't sit in your sun," Holden concludes on "Sun." The album is a constant push and pull, of finding the goodness in your life and then watching it fade away. The uplift comes from the fact that, usually, it seems to circle back.

Whatever love story Holden is telling here, it's pretty clear that it doesn't make it to the conclusion of "End of Reel." When Holden sings about the girl who is "singing her swan song again" and how "it got stuck in my head as the sound of you," there's a definite feeling that this girl is someone the narrator is never going to see again—not in this life, at least. The track, despite striking poetry about "dayglow blades scorched by hovering halos" and the "resonant calm" that echoes off the walls, is ultimately a breakup song. But the song's key line and rallying cry isn't "Washing away until I don't even cringe at the thought of you"; rather, it's "I don't know what I want, what I want's where I've been." Holden might have gotten his heart broken here, and the ultimate "swan song" he sings about probably wasn't even an amicable one. By the end of the album though, Holden knows one thing: he wants the goodness back.

Falling in love might end in a broken heart; friendships might start out strong, only to wither in later years; forging connections with other people might one day lead you to their gravesides, reflecting on mortality and pain. But the message of Goodness is that it's worth it to experience that pain and regret if you get to experience the goodness along the way. An album ago, Holden was "calling in sick" to a friend's funeral, unable to accept the loss. Here, he's getting up, brushing themselves off, and saying "hit me again." It's tough not to smile at the thought of such resilience.

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