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New Music: The Hotelier – Goodness

The Hotelier - Goodness (censored)The HotelierGoodness //

5-BamsTop Tracks: “Sun”
“Piano Player”

When you make a record so vital and overwhelmingly powerful that it establishes you as the standard-bearers for an entire genre, the only possible follow-up is to release an album so utterly transcendent it renders the genre distinction moot. The Hotelier’s 2014 LP Home, Like NoPlace Is There was a breakthrough in the sense that the few hundred people they played in front of nightly screamed every word of it back to the Worcester, Mass., band, and critics referred to them, alongside peers like Joyce Manor, Into It. Over It and Modern Baseball as leading the “emo revival,” a term used with varying degrees of sarcasm. But Goodness doesn’t fit into that box quite as neatly. Largely eschewing the pop-punk genre tropes and sonic conventions emo is beholden to, the 13-track LP sounds more like a band making a leap and taking the entire scene with them.

Home was written while singer and bassist Christian Holden’s social circle, a scene once so crucial to creating and sustaining The Hotelier, was tearing itself apart. Many of Holden’s friends at the time were suicidal, including his then-girlfriend, who made it difficult for him to take care of anyone other than her. “I was in this abusive relationship with somebody who was suicidal and I couldn’t get out of because I felt like I would be responsible for her death if she were to kill herself,” Holden told Stereogum this month. Home standout “In Framing” was written about her and what Holden then saw as her inevitable suicide; fortunately the funeral he wrote about faking an illness to miss, to avoid her family and feelings of both guilt and responsibility, never came to pass. “Life in Drag” was written about another friend who was abusing his girlfriend; after hearing the song, he stopped speaking to Holden.

Rather than pull as extensively from Holden’s previously tumultuous personal life and fraught relationships, Goodness is written more obliquely (it also, thankfully, appears to reflect a life that has found some kind of stability). Songs opaquely describe people and relationships who may or may not represent Holden or the listener, with Taoist philosophy and Mary Oliver references scattered throughout. Phrases and imagery (notably “you in this light”) are repeatedly woven into different points of the album, creating a cyclical feel that mirrors its major Taoist themes of death and rebirth, death and renewal.

Where Home was about tearing open wounds new and old, Goodness is more interested in closure, in healing. Where Home was written from a place of darkness — or, at least, a place adjacent to darkness, struggling to cope with it — Goodness is written from something closer to serenity, in understanding death as both prelude and postlude to life. Tinged with equal parts hope and regret, grief and exaltation, it mirrors hip-hop’s recent and historical flirtation with gospel influence and feeling in its acknowledgement of past trauma and yearning for communal catharsis to purge the pain — an ultralight beam for the guitar scene.

The sound is richer and fuller, with most of Home‘s jagged edges smoothed to a comfortably warm roar. Holden takes more risks in composition and structure as well, at times removing instrument parts like on “Goodness Pt. 2”, which consists of sparse drums and Holden’s clear voice for several verses before finally unleashing the massive pop-punk guitar riff it’s been threatening, then only to pull it away after exactly one minute. The song ends with repeated snare drum hits at an interval that eventually lead into the rapid-fire snare pattern of “Piano Player”, which is just a picture-perfect piece of anthemic guitar rock. “The entire room awash in the sustaaaaaaaain,” Holden yells, and you can already picture a tiny venue awash in sustained reverb and a crowd holding that high note along with Holden.

If there’s a song that best represents the leap The Hotelier have made on Goodness, it’s “Sun”, which has been previewed live as far back as last fall’s tour with The Get-Up Kids. It rides a twangy swagger of a guitar riff into a quiet plea from Holden (“Will you lay with me when the sun hits right?”) and then a rumbling breakdown and slow build, like thunderclouds blowing up and covering the face of the sun, before Holden begins softly intoning “suuuuuuuun,” as the storm builds behind him, finally crashing open in a wash of bright guitars and drums that are as jarring and beautiful as a downpour in the daylight.

For an album so much about the cycle of life and death, of birth and rebirth, it seems only fitting that Goodness feels like both the arrival and culmination of emo as a distinct genre. It’s an album so undeniable, so capital-G great that it both demands and transcends attention. If Home was an album of death, then Goodness is an album of life, affirming and overflowing with it.

~Matthew Caponi


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