Release Date: May 20, 2016
Label: Tiny Engines
“Listen more, speak less,” Christian Holden wrote on Tumblr a few months ago, in anticipation of his band’s forthcoming new album. These seemed like strange words coming from the Hotelier’s notoriously verbose frontman. To wit: Goodness, the Worcester, Massachusetts indie-punk outfit’s bracingly human, paradigm-shifting third album opens with a recitation of a spoken-word poem. “I see the moon, the moon sees me,” Holden reads calmly. “I would smile but it would be meaningless. I wouldn’t want it to be.” You can almost hear the eyeballs begin to roll as the band cited as being at the forefront of a “revival” (that many would argue never actually came to pass) kicks off their new one with a f**king poem.
Granted, it’s hard to fault anyone for shrugging off the so-called rebirth of a scene that quickly became both fairly and unfairly synonymous with entitled navel-gazing, arrested development and, uh, crying. Sure, it was a surprise that the Hotelier’s 2014 sophomore effort, Home, Like NoPlace Is There, was embraced by rock fans of all stripes (along with the music of peers like Joyce Manor, the World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, and Into It. Over It.) and that passionate, melodically inclined guitar music seemed worthy of people’s attention again.
Still, listeners too prideful to ignore the perceived immaturity associated with the dreaded E-word had mistaken it for another trivial rock’n’roll obscenity those same listeners would likely also forswear: earnestness. But whether or not this long-derided genre experienced (or is still experiencing) a second coming is irrelevant. What does matter is that a new generation of young bands — with their artistic convictions rooted in a compulsion to be as honest as they possibly can with themselves and their audiences — is quietly thriving, and Goodness may be the most crucial piece of evidence we have to confirm that. Emo is dead; long live the Hotelier.
Despite it technically being their third LP (their 2011 debut, It Never Goes Out, was credited to the Hotel Year, and was recorded when its members were in their mid-to-late teens), Goodness feels like that very rare sophomore achievement where a fresh, already pretty great band becomes somehow cosmically greater, an evolutionary step that calls to mind something like Titus Andronicus unleashing The Monitor. It’s not that this is at all a different band that made There, but one that has gracefully acquiesced to the inevitability of musical and emotional growth, taking the inward focus of adolescent angst and turning it outwards, ready to face a world we’re all forced to confront at some point in time.
“Withered down to our basic components / We are naked, at rest, and alone,” Holden belts over the spare drums at the onset of the thunderous “Goodness Pt. 2,” and continues profoundly: “And the drone of the open air yawning / Couldn’t make me feel any less small.” Holden has become a more careful and considerate lyricist, still writing from a personal place but doing so more opaquely, as if to invite as many points of view as possible.
Just like the nice folks baring it all on the album’s cover, there’s something so elemental and immodest about Goodness; it seems as though it was willed up from the weeds through some sort of Thoreauvian divinity. You can hear it in the gnarled twang of the gigantic “Sun” and see it in the fawns and stars and rivers that are peppered throughout the entire album. Certainly anyone who has ever spent a lonely summer in rural New England will identify with these images immediately, but the Hotelier are able to tap into something even more universal, where the mysteries of loneliness, loss, and longing reveal themselves in frightening but beautiful bursts.
Goodness is a spiritually rich listen, but none of it would matter much if it weren’t such a goddamn great rock album. For something that, on paper, reads as terribly intimate, its anthemic appeal transforms Goodness into a surprisingly liberating event. Especially on the spring rush of single “Piano Player” and the openhearted ache of “Two Deliverances,” these private experiences become electrifyingly communal. Yet wedged in-between are moments of cautious reverie in the form of campfire songs and ruminative ballads, affording more credit to how well-balanced — and life-affirming — a record this ambitious can be.
And yeah, “life-affirming” gets thrown around too much when talking about major works like this one, but sometimes there’s just no way around that descriptor. The important difference here is that Goodness understands that the term isn’t explicitly joyful; life is full of worry and doubt and uncertainty, and to ignore that fact would be dishonest, rendering the affirmation meaningless. Goodness knows the Hotelier wouldn’t want it to be.