REVIEW: The Hotelier find peace from agony with ‘Goodness’

goodness feature pic

Artist: The Hotelier
Album: Goodness
Label: Tiny Engines
Genre: Taoist Indie Rock, Emo, Pop-Punk

Like many fans of The Hotelier, I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard their breakout sophomore record, Home, Like Noplace Is There. Alone in my freshman year dorm room on a Sunday night in February, I listened to Home in full for the very first time, and as I sat alone at my desk with nothing but my shaky hands gripping a coffee mug to keep me company, I found it hard to pay attention to anything other than the music pouring through my headphones. Home is a record that commandeers the senses and demands full attention; the supercharged, cathartic “fuck” at the peak of “An Introduction To The Album,” the ebb and flow of energy through “Among The Wildflowers” and “Life In Drag,” the crushing image of a tombstone that caps “Dendron”—Home is full of moments that stuck out on first listen and continue to haunt with each subsequent playthrough. It hit like a tidal wave in 2014 and it hits like a tidal wave now.

Home is the kind of album that’s damn near impossible to follow up without letting anyone down. It’s a record that’s seemingly remembered more for the connections listeners forged with it, rather than the musical content itself. Only time will tell if the band’s third full-length, Goodness, will live up to the sentimental value so many attach to Home, but from a strictly musical standpoint, Goodness is a competent, if deeply flawed follow-up to one of the most important emo records of the past decade.

Rather than trying to recapture the tragic narrative potency of Home, the band opted instead for a patchwork of love and connection with Goodness. There’s no exposition, no characters to piece together and analyze on a track-by-track basis. Rather, the album consists of a few moments that tie together to juxtapose the emotional resonance therein and ultimately examine the means of moving past tragedy and trying to reclaim the innocence lost in the process, possibly realizing that it’s ultimately impossible to do so. “Settle The Scar,” a re-recorded song from the band’s Hotel Year days, deals with an ending romantic relationship and the difference between the two parties as things come to a close: “I am feeling long, cold winters / I’m lost and can’t remember the ways to keep myself as warm as then.” This same feeling can be seen in the narrative woven through “Opening Mail For My Grandmother” and “Soft Animal,” which deals with the loss of a grandmother and seeking innocence from death in the image of a fawn doe in the early morning, alone in the woods. When the deer’s mother is presumably shot, the narrator refuses to accept its passing: “A mob of voices harmonize 
/ and tell me that you’re not alive 
/ but I can feel the rustling as you go.” Ultimately, the message seems to be that the titular “goodness” is fleeting; peace from the reality of despair exists, but only in doses. As a follow-up to the endlessly crushing Home, this message is particularly poignant. If you must actively seek out peace, does the peace truly exist?

Musically, Goodness is straightforward and somewhat simple in its composition. “Two Deliverences” sticks to a relaxed, catchy chord progression as Holden’s visceral melodies cut into the chorus. “Settle The Scar” keep its twinkly main riff and features the record’s strongest chorus melody. A new bridge, not present in the old demo version of the song from their six-way split with Modern Baseball, Old Gray, Pentimento, Dikembe, and Empire! Empire! (I Was A Lonely Estate), shows that the band has learned how to effectively employ pacing since the song’s original 2013 release. However, the musical high point of the record is absolutely “Sun.” The second half slows the record to a crawl, and hums along ambiently with muted noise and a gentle guitar strum as Holden softly sings the word “sun” in elongated resonance. It’s a long moment that builds organically to a incredible closing, and absolutely embodies the image present in the song’s chorus: “Will you lay with me where the sun hits right? / When the tired days can’t remember / how a blurring haze came across your eyes / Will you lay with me forever?” This is the exact moment where it’s clear without a shadow of a doubt that The Hotelier have made the leap from a very talented pop-punk band to something far more important in the landscape of independent rock.

That said, Goodness is a bit of a letdown due to some questionable choices in production and presentation. Frustrating, even. Chief amongst the nitpicks is the record’s production. While Home, Like Noplace Is There leaves quite a bit to be desired in the mixing department, Goodness manages to regress heavily from that record’s completely adequate engineering job with a baffling mix that prioritizes the drums over the vocals.

Other jarring, sonic decisions are present elsewhere on the record. “N 43° 59′ 38.927″ W 71° 23′ 45.27’’,” the album’s opening track and the first of three interludes, is simply Christian reciting a poem without musical accompaniment. The content is perfectly fine in setting up the record, describing an intimate connection between two people, talking “not of much, but of little,” with references to the moon (reflected in “Sun”) and using the phrase “you in this light,” which is seen again later in the record in the track of the same name. However, Holden’s delivery is uninspired, as if he’s reading it for the first time. Thus, the effect is deflated entirely and once the message of the (very well written) poem sinks into the listener, there’s no reason to revisit this track. There’s no nuance in the reading, no dynamics—it’s a boring take that seems to serve only the purpose of introducing the themes of the record, a purpose arguably better suited to the lyrics of pre-release promotional track “Goodness Part 1,” which does not appear on the record.

Rather, “Goodness Part 1” featured in this (NSFW) album trailer that teased the controversial album artwork and set up some of the record’s themes—escapism, learning to seek happiness after losing someone you relied upon, and finding the “goodness” in life through a Taoist approach. “When your eyes became focused on absence / how the shadows were cast on the plane / under moonlight of middle November / I was shifting to stay in the frame,” sings Holden, elongating his syllables over a Neutral Milk Hotel-style acoustic number. The track ends with each of the instruments fading into obscurity, as Holden proclaims, “when this began, this was a thing that we could both share / A bit of shame, the goodness fades, and we begin there.” It feels like the logical starting point to Goodness, yet, the song is not present on the album.

While that fact alone makes its omission confusing, this decision is called even further into question upon first play of the jarring and discordant “Goodness Part 2.” It shares a vocal melody and outro with “Goodness Part 1,” but it’s far less accessible with clashing, syncopated, sustained guitar notes clashing over Holden’s vocals and the punchy drum hits that open the track. Eventually the song opens up into what is essentially a full-band rendition of “Goodness Part 1” with different lyrics—“If we spin without compass in circles will we fall in the same exact place?” After following the album rollout, first listen to “Part 2” is impressive, and showcases the best of The Hotelier’s tendency to tie songs together for thematic significance. But the decision to tie all relief and weight of the album’s least accessible track to a song that is not on the record is questionable and needlessly complicated.

In fact, the term “needlessly complicated” can be applied to plenty of the stylistic decisions on Goodness. The spaced-out snare drum hits between “Goodness Part 2” and “Piano Player,” and at the end of “End Of Reel,” kill all of the record’s momentum between its two most upbeat songs for the purpose of marking, in Holden’s own words, “the beginning and end of the narrative arc of the record. The idea that goodness is brief and ends abruptly and that time is not linear. Also it was funny.” The spaced-out, stripped-down production style with loud drums and drowned-out vocals seeks to provide, again in Christian’s words, “a lot more room for silence and spreading stuff out.” Holden also states the band “was messing around with keeping certain parts of songs missing on purpose, both structurally and instrumentally” for the purpose of making Goodness “feel more natural.” While these choices are certainly stylistic and intentional, they just don’t work as intended; the snare overpowers the entire mix of the upbeat “Piano Player,” the ringing cymbals in “Soft Animal” cut through the emotional catharsis and powerful imagery of a dying deer in the song’s poetically gripping outro, and a complete lack of power in the guitars neuters the transitions in “Settle The Scar.” While all of these complaints can easily be written off as nitpicks, it hurts to think about how much better each of these tracks could have been with just a bit more gloss and care.

Despite the skill present and the overt leaps in both musicianship and lyricism, it’s hard to shake the notion that Goodness feels like a missed opportunity. The songwriting is stronger than ever before and the lyricism ditches all genre-standard cliche in favor of a deep dissection of a singular feeling, yet the poor production and a handful of seemingly intentional complications hurt the greater piece’s overall strength. With that, Goodness still features some of the band’s best work to date. Goodness is absolutely one of 2016’s most packed and personal releases, and should be listened to in full with careful consideration, despite its shortcomings.

SCORE: 7/10

John Bazley
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