8.2 BEST NEW RECORD
self-released / 2015
Brother-sister folk rock duo The Oh Hellos' 2012 debut Through the Deep, Dark Valley had a sound and an aesthetic so fully-formed it seemed like Maggie and Tyler Heath had been practicing the songs together since they were in elementary school (they hadn't). But the most shocking part was that the entire immaculate package was put together by the Heaths themselves, from writing to recording to performing to mixing and mastering. That tangible care and polish, along with the songwriting alchemy between Maggie and Tyler, spills from the very tops of their excellent follow-up, Dear Wormwood. Their layered, self-produced sound is somehow inimitable: Crystalline banjo overlays guitars, overlaying powerful drums, while fiddle and strings churn beneath it all. Before they swapped their suspenders for leather jackets, Mumford used to daydream about sounding like this.
Dear Wormwood's title is pulled straight out of The Screwtape Letters, and it's not the first time ol' Clive Staples has gotten a nod from the band - the gorgeous "The Lament of Eustace Scrubb" from Deep, Dark Valley referenced a scene from Narnia's Voyage of the Dawn Treader. This time, they've taken Screwtape's central conceit - letters written by a veteran demon to a trainee tempter - and repurposed it as framing device for the whole record. According to the Heaths, the LP is "a collection of letters, all written by a single protagonist and addressed to a single recipient", though they're cagey about specifics beyond that, though they also assert that Dear Wormwood acts as a second volume to the tale told in Deep, Dark Valley, picking up where its protagonist's story left off. Like that album, the narrative is loose, and even more so here because of the epistolary nature of each track. Still, there are clear themes threaded the whole way through, and an emotional arc that gives the yarn staying power for a listener who's tuned in.
Kicking off the album after a brief prelude, "Bitter Water" paints a lurid, can't-look-away picture of the addictive relationship at its center, with the protagonist's willful engagement despite full knowledge of the correspondent's homicidal intentions: "I am not a fool entire/No, I know what is coming/You'll bury me beneath the trees I climbed/When I was a child". That decadent status quo doesn't stay for long, though. Dear Wormwood hits all the beats of a break-up album, oscillating between tender nostalgia and acid barbs as the central relationship reveals itself as a clever inversion of the one at the center of Screwtape: instead of letters addressed to a junior devil from his senior, these are glimpses of a mortal having it out with his tormentor.
By the time the incredible title track rolls around, the hero is sprinting, fast, away from his torturer. But as all addicts know, it's one thing to run from your demons, and another to turn and face them. "Dear Wormwood" is a cry of open revolt, but even more importantly, of recognition. It's the moment when he finally unmasks the shadowy thing vandalizing his heart ("I know who you are now, and I name you my enemy"), and the chorus that accompanies it is truly stirring. It's a rib-rattling, pupil-dilating anthem on the level of Arcade Fire's best work like "Wake Up" and "No Cars Go", and stands as the band's new highwater mark, which is really saying something because they'd set some rather lofty ones already.
Dear Wormwood's closing track ends the story on a note of expectant hope, casting its eyes forward, to the Resurrection and the renewal of all things. It's clear that a divorce has taken place between the characters ("To and fro, I will not follow/Where you go, I will not also"), but the protagonist still dreams that the broken part he left behind will find redemption, too: "Will you leave your shaded hollow?/Will you greet the daylight looming/Learn to love without consuming?". The song's title, "Thus Always to Tyrants", is perfectly chosen, too. That reference, to a quote attributed to Brutus (often depicted as full of love for his friend Julius Caesar, even while participating in his murder) perfectly capture the tension within the main character. Namely, it's a relief to kill the mental persona that has been wreaking havoc in your life, but we still hold out hope that these wretched, deformed aspects of ourselves will be included in the comprehensive Healing to come.