In 1996, David Foster Wallace joined a wide-tied Mark Leyner and a floppy-haired Jonathan Franzen on the Charlie Rose show to discuss, among other things, the obsolescence of Serious Art in a world of televisual temptations and related brain-melt. It’s an enjoyable discussion from the rose-tinted days of the War on Serious Art, the skirmishes before Spotify and listicles and highly-polished vlogs about beauty products, though much of the wisdom Rose draws from the young men still stands today. Their basic conclusion is that challenging art is shrinking but not dying, and that it’s part of an artist’s responsibility to balance the work/reward trade-off, to provide entertainment for the consumer so that they are suitably motivated for any mid-to-heavy lifting. Speaking of his own work, Wallace hoped “it’s complicated and it’s hard and it’s weird but it’s also seductive enough that you’re willing to do the work to go through that, and a lot of that has to do with trying to be delightful.”
Boston’s Hallelujah The Hills are a band which seem to create according to similar aims and aspirations. Ryan H. Walsh and Co. release detailed, carefully-written albums without ruining their status as a bona fide rock band, their songs resonating on an emotional level irrespective of whether or not the listener wants to delve into the more cerebral aspects. The band went a good way to nailing the complicated/fun trade-off on 2014’s Have You Ever Done Something Evil?, a record we described as “good-time rock and roll with a weird edge”, but their new release, A Band is Something to Figure Out, sees the formula refined once more. Here the dichotomy has been stapled back together, the songs no longer working on several levels but rather across wide open vistas, accessible and interesting simultaneously. Even the most abstract lyrics feel important on an subconscious level. This is an album built from symbolism (one of the tags on Bandcamp is ‘hieroglyphics’, to give you an idea) but, like all the best mysteries, a sense of significance floats to the top, independent of any hidden code.
This intuitive meaning is present from the off. The album’s opener ‘What Do The People Want’ is a rousing, strangely emotional, indie rocker which proceeds with a tone that can only be termed bewildered hope. What the people actually want is never made clear, though they experiment with a multitude of strange situations in an attempt to find out, “calling the M’s from the dictionary” and “telling jokes in the ossuary” and “waving backwards to Massachusetts / trying to win the ‘World’s Best Haunt’©” (itself reference to a song from their début, Collective Psychosis Begone). There’s a real feeling of disorientation here but it never feels isolating. Rather it seems uniting, a force of perplexment so ubiquitous it has become a source of solidarity. ‘We Have The Perimeter Surrounded’ follows in emphatic manner, a song which raises a number of questions. Such as: Does Woody Guthrie dream of punk bands? Do the FBI chase indie rock musicians? In the blur between reality and fiction, a postmodern confusion reigns, though the celebratory, earnest tone (which is positively nostalgic by the midway mark) is set it apart from the usual paranoid sort of deal.
a weird dream
a punk band
called Exed Out
they were amazing
every single thing that I could think of
we have the perimeter surrounded”
Full of catchy hooks, ‘The Mountain That Wanted More’ tells of a modern dissatisfaction where even the grandest, most impressive, among us are victims to a constant desire for more, and ‘The Girl With Electronics Inside’ sounds like a 90s indie hit written by George Saunders, a man/machine love song whose Big Feeling instrumental section suggests a complete lack of irony. ‘Spin the Atoms’ is slow and slinky and cartoonish in the Pynchonian sense, the background whirring bleep sounding like some covert analysis in a deep desert bunker, before ‘I’m in the Phone Book, I’m On the Planet, I’m Dying Slowly’ provides a pretty succinct summation of what its like to be alive. The song finds its characters bumping through life yet seized by a chemically assisted pseudo-wisdom, their conclusions (the title/chorus) morbid and moving and monstrous enough for decisive action (“a ritual in a Motel 6 / to make us one, at least for a night… Let me lay my hands on top of glowing spheres of endless light!”).
‘Play it as it Loops’ is a metafictional oddity for the time of instant gratification while ‘Hassle Magnet’ is heavy and relentless, the instrumentation and vocals rattling toward distortion. The track can be heard in various ways – the neurotic interior of a blank faced citizen, a cryptographic bulletin from an enigmatic sect, the ravings of some brain-fried wacko – though those of you with energy, time and grey matter will probably find clear threads leading elsewhere within the Hallelujah the Hills labyrinth. ‘New Phone Who Dis’ emerges with surprising tenderness, a song which sounds like the lone voice in a desolate expanse of digital echoes and cyber-ghosts, a person stripped and scorched by the constant beam of information yet still trying to maintain a sense of pride and an openness to connection:
“you now know
there’s a code word for you in the files
it’s certainly been awhile
the parts of me you reviled
have all been removed
but I didn’t do it for you
new phone who dis?”
‘The Dangers Are Doubled’ sees a return to the celebratory tone, Walsh’s words riding the crest of bright instrumentation and taking pleasure in absurd details and ambiguities, while ‘Realistic Birthday Music’ is carried by a similar energy. Returning to the themes of fiction vs. truth, the track crosses the wires of image and reality to paint a mimetic scene of the 21st century. Here the characters are trying to act with sincerity according to what they’ve seen on screen, their ideas of human connection coloured or constructed by televisual representations of those very things.
“i’ve seen this in a movie
but never without a soundtrack of folk music
to coax and guide me toward your bed
And I’m coming at you with realistic birthday music
i’m coming at you with my hands above my head
And I’m coming at you with realistic birthday music
you’ve heard this song before
you’ve heard this song before”
There’s a lot of postmodern confusion present on A Band is Something to Figure Out but Hallelujah the Hills are not a postmodern band. Rather they are post-postmodern, reconstructing the human experience through sheer enthusiasm, using their joyous hooks and choruses as earnest expressions of emotion rather than ironic juxtapositions. Walsh and Co. aren’t sitting us down to share a smirk and a wink, or to reel off some abstract philosophical theories, but rather taking us by the hand and running through their strange world, leaving it up to us to catch something meaningful in the breathless blur. And what a world this is, one which has been evolving since their first album, an ecosystem based on a strange molecule – twin strands of confusion and intuition tightly bound and swirled into a double helix – the DNA of Hallelujah the Hills.
You can buy A Band is Something to Figure Out now from the Hallelujah The Hills Bandcamp page.