The Oh Hellos finally released their album "Dear Wormwood." I could write an extremely long-winded post about this, but I'm going to try and restrain myself. To just jump right to the end: it's an incredible album that I cannot stop listening to, and I would encourage anyone and everyone to at least go give it a listen: http://music.theohhellos.com/album/dear-wormwood. It's a concept album that has an overarching narrative throughout, so it's best to listen to the whole thing, but there are also some powerful singles in there, my personal favorites being "Exeunt" , "Where is Your Rider" "Soldier, Poet, King", and "Thus Always to Tyrants". But every song is good. Literally, every song. Even if it's not the type of music you're into, I think you can appreciate the artistry and power that this twenty-something brother-and-sister team have imbued into their music.
Now let's get a little more nuanced with it. The Oh Hellos have always had christian overtones to their music. Not in an obvious "praise Jesus" kind of way, but in a much more symbolic, rich, searching way. Something akin to Sufjan Stevens, I would say, but for me, it runs deeper. Their first album "Through the Deep Dark Valley" is more about a quest for answers and a desire to rebel than it is about anything definitively religious; only at the very end does it start to feel that they've discovered an "answer" in god, but their imagery and statements are things anyone whose given their life two seconds of self-examination, religious, scientific, personal, or otherwise, would think:
"And the truth was a cave
On the mountain side
And I'd seek it out until the day I died
I was bound
I was bound and determined
To be the child
To be the child you wanted
I was blind to every sign
You left for me to find
And the truth became a tool
That I held in my hand
And I wielded it but didn't I understand?
I was tired
Of giving more than you gave to me
And I desired
A truth I wouldn't have to seek
In the silence I heard you calling out to me"
- The Truth is a Cave, Through the Deep Dark Valley, The Oh Hellos
I get the sense when I listen to "Through the Deep Dark Valley" that I'm listening to their story as much as I'm listening to a story about a religious figure. It shines through in the composition too: the richness and eagerness with which they sing and put together their work is just incredible and speaks of something deeper than just a simple desire to make music. They connect the listener to their story through their music whether the beliefs or experience are or are not shared.
"Dear Wormwood" pretty much solidifies The Oh Hellos as a distinctly christian group (maybe... I dunno, perhaps they just like telling religious stories!). In essence, it is a retelling of "The Screwtape Letters" by C.S. Lewis, a conversation in letters between a lesser and a greater demon attempting to tempt a human (despite knowing the work, I will confess that I have not read it). Not being religious, when I saw the title of the album, frankly, I was a little worried they were going to lose me. Most modern christian music feels flat and hollow to me, despite the intention and subject matter, similar to how popular country music has little new to say from one song to another or one artist to another. If it speaks to you, you may love listening to it, however if it does not, then there is little to draw you in.
By naming the album after a distinctly christian work of fiction they were pretty much clearing up any doubt I may have had about who the "you" was in the first album. I'm embarrassed to say that prior to "Dear Wormwood's" release, I even had slight (but emotional) period of mourning for a wonderful band that I wasn't going to be able to comfortably listen too any more! I was still going to buy the album, but I wasn't particularly hopeful about how long it would stick with me.
Maggie and Tyler Heath delivered so far over the bar that would have made me happy that I'm struggling to put it into words. They haven't just put together another album, they have done so in a way that combines history, poetry, epic fiction, powerful and artful music and lyrics, and so much much more. They are truly tremendous musicians. My favorite set of lyrics come from the song "Exeunt":
"I was all alone, we were young, you were like wine
heady as the fog rolling in o're the hillside
lovely as the song in the air as the wind blows
Opiate as the cold of the frost on the windows
Lo, the rose is gone from my eyes (so deceiving)
So, my little dove, I'm afraid I am leaving
Now I am not the fool I was when I was younger
Crocodile eyes I can see how you hunger
Fluttering your lashes, like ashes and embers
Warm and bright as fire devouring timber"
Man. When you hear it with the music the first verse is very melodic and slow, while the second just coarses with energy and power. I get goosebumps when I listen to it.
You can find song-by-song breakdowns in several places already, so I'm not going to do that here. But suffice it to say that it's clear to me that I should never write off music because of subject matter. This will almost certainly be my favorite album of the year. (Although Tupperware Remix Party's work is a close second for extremely different reasons. ;-))
It feels trivial these days to appreciate religious visual art, ancient or modern, for its skill and beauty, but I don't think I had experienced it with modern musics quite like I have with "Dear Wormwood." The story and narrative arc in their songwriting is wonderful and could have stood alone; the composition is entirely tall, complete, and powerful and could have carried lesser material; and taken all wrapped in with the personal story told in "Through the Deep Dark Valley" just really sets everything about the Oh Hellos apart from other music for me.
It's not the kind of thing that I will always want to turn on and play, but it really is a work of art that deserves to be recognized if nothing else for the care and effort put into every little detail of this project.
Hope you all get even half as much enjoyment out of it as I have. :-)