"Part of your charm was the way you would push me from all of the traps that I just couldn't see. Figures the one that was there to have tripped you up, would be the one that was set there by me."
That is just one of the handful of heart wrenching lines that wrap up Worcester, MA's The Hotelier's 2014 epic Home, Like No Place Is There, the album that officially opened the floodgates of the inaccessibly labeled fourth-wave emo. Over the course of the album's 9 tracks, frontman Christian Holden tries to make sense of a friend's suicide. He sings and yells and screams. Little resolution is found.
But a strange thing happens in the years following, a thing that was rare in previous incarnations of the emo genre but has become almost standard-fare for these fourth-wavers: Christian strove to move on.
“It is not enough to say that The Hotelier have grown older, or wiser, or more of anything. We can trace a progression, if we like, from the explosive empowerment of It Never Goes Out to the ashen disillusionment of Home, Like Noplace Is There. We can follow an awakening of youth in suburbia attempting to learn what is right, and what is ours, and what is possible and impossible, and maybe we can’t save each other like we thought we once could. We’re awake and we’re tired and we want love in our lives again. And so we find ourselves now in Goodness, in the woods outside of the suburbs, trying to re-learn that love."
We're awake and we're tired and we want love in our lives again. This about sums up The Hotelier's recently released Goodness, but make no mistake: this is not a "love record" in any common sense of the term. As Holden has said in a few places, Goodness reads more like a grasping after Taoist love, a love in the larger, transcendent sense. Each track has something to do with this Love, this Goodness that he hungers for, but the characters and contexts vary drastically throughout the entire 47 minutes.
In other words, it's a small step from this Goodness to Jesus Christ. And it's this incredible articulation of Holden's hunger, in the wake of the devastating loss so expertly presented in Home, for this Good that makes this album so fascinatingly breathtaking.
A photo of naked elderly men and women dresses the album's cover, and there isn't a better image that captures the entire thrust of Goodness. Christian finds himself in the woods of New England "trying to re-learn" the love he had become hardened to, and the album opens with him setting this scene in a brief spoken word track. "I see the moon and the moon sees me. That's enough."
"Goodness Pt. 2" continues to paint this picture of retreat. "Withered down to our basic components we are naked, at rest, and alone. And the drone of the open air yawning couldn't help me feel any less small," Holden exclaims over as simple drum beat, the vocal track sounding as isolated as the feeling he's trying to portray. And then, "A little bird from the side of the sidewalk sings me hymnals of comfort and pain: 'Give me you all disarmed and uncertain, and I'll promise that I''ll do the same.'"
And we're off.
"Piano Player" follows, changing gears quite a bit. Here, as Holden explained to SPIN, he presents a girl half his age and an older woman, each wondering how long love will sustain, each "a source of wisdom in this world interacting with this idea of foreverness and being real with the fact that things don't last forever."
"I don't know if I know love no more," he bellows as the track concludes. Ian Cohen interprets this as the "sagely woman giving her blessing to a young couple falling in love even though, at some point, it will end." Or maybe it's just Holden struggling with re-learning what, exactly, Love is.
Mid-album standout "Opening Mail For My Grandmother" details a whole other sort of loving relationship as Holden sings of, well, opening mail for his grandmother as she nears death. Just a single electric guitar fills the background for most of the track. A chorus of "I'm coming for you" is first directed lovingly from Holden to his grandmother, only to then become a reminder of looming death coming from the birds outside her window: "I'm coming for you." But until the moment of her death, Holden insists that he will be there by her bedside opening the mail:
"So old in your body, the youth's in your mood. They're keeping you 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."
The best and most significant track on Goodness is, undoubtedly, "Soft Animal." It also has the unique honor of being the greatest song about a deer ever written.
Holden is in a cabin, laying in bed. "Sophie is in the bunk overhead, reading Mary Oliver." Then he sees it. "Fawn, doe, light snow," the rest of the band chants in the background. The beauty of the deer standing there in the snow becomes an encounter with Goodness for Holden. "Make me feel alive, make be believe that all my selves align!" he shouts internally towards the creature. Holden keeps quiet so as not to disturb the deer, watching as it stands there in the rolling fog. "I can hear the rustling as you go...oh, go slow." More chanting and more yelling: "Make me believe that there's a God sometimes!"
Then things take a turn when a hunter's bullet pierces the mother: "The ring around your mother's heart grows saccharine and falls apart, and I can hear the rustling as you go." The echo of the rifles cause the deer to run off as the refrain of "I can hear the rustling as you go" repeats. Holden, remaining still in the distance, listens for the fate of his Good Friend.
"A mob of voices harmonize and tell me that you're not alive." Hearing becomes feeling as the refrain changes.
"I can feel the rustling as you go."
Scattered throughout the album are three brief interludes, each titled by different coordinates which appear to be in the middle of nowhere (they're locations significant only to Holden). In the background of the second and third interlude is a soft lullaby: A camper named Tessa taught it to Holden while working as a counselor.
The same words from the opening poem resound: "I see the moon and the moon sees me."
"Sun" is another standout, the last track before the album turns rather drastically towards its conclusion. This time Holden hones in on the lover who constantly gives, but refuses to receive. In an interview with Gold Flake Paint, he explained:
"Sun was based on conversations I'd had with a friend about actually being the sun...theorizing about how we should try to achieve being the sun, being this radiant ball of light. I though about how the sun was so interesting because it gives off so much energy but then refuses to take any back. I though about the idea of someone being the sun and how lonely that would be and how dark an existence it would be even though you're always in the light."
"Fear of Good", clocking in at just under two minutes, sets the stage for the roaring final track. Standing on a "summit height" Holden tells "brother sky" he wants to hold his hand but, standing there, finds himself "tense and small and speechless."
"I am freezing," he concludes.
In closing track "End of Reel" Goodness is "present and hallowed," overflowing and covering the "soldiering messes of dayglow blades scorched by hovering halos." "I don't know what I want; what I want's where I've been!" Holden states repeatedly, bringing this journey into Goodness--into the woods outside of the suburbs in search of It--to its completion.
And what a journey it is; a journey made all the more mesmerizing if one begins with the chirping birds telling Holden to "tear the building down" in the legendary opener "An Introduction to the Album" on Home. Christian Holden has suffered unthinkable loss. He has poured his heart out and tried to sing and scream and shout his way through the despair. He has abandoned the noise and messiness of the suburbs. In the end he finds himself in the woods, yearning and reaching out and grasping for Goodness, Love, and Beauty.
He encounters this great Good in the moon, the sky, a freaking deer, and his grandmother, and continues to articulate this encounter far better than most Christian artists today.
Us lucky listeners get to reap the fruits of his endurance.