HMLTD’s debut album blooms with creativity
Lay of the land.
It is not necessarily easy to sit down and write a coherent description of West of Eden. HMLTD’s much laboured album has finally seen the light after the uncertainties around its release literally became a meme, and this makes it hard to approach the record itself without being hindered by a tide of expectations. Which can be tough with a band that has always gleefully revelled in the unexpected. In approaching West of Eden – whose title nods both to the intense debating of nondescript ‘Western culture’ we have witnessed in recent years and to the exile of Cain, of Biblical memory – a completely different strategy than ‘did it live up to the hype?’ might be required.
Consider this, then. West of Eden is a much-loved, much-wanted child that has been carried to term after a difficult gestation and against the odds. Like many human children of this sort, its (artistic) parents can be a bit too lenient with it at time. But their love and attention for it is evident regardless, and the care for detail that is the result of it makes it a record that is at the very least worth talking about.
What’s on offer?
Let’s start with the negatives, just to get them out of the way. There aren’t many, really; the main concern with the album is the same that we have already seen with studio versions of previous HMLTD singles, which occasionally suffer from over-production and sound a little too clean and smooth compared to their raging, rough and dirty stage counterparts. To be fully honest, this is not felt everywhere, or not everywhere to the same degree. The West is Dead suffers from it the most – a screeching punk anthem for the contemporary days when performed on stage, somehow it feels muffled in the studio take. Loaded still works very well in this mildly cleaned-up form, and still has one of the best drops heard in recent music and the power to stick in my brain for ages, but I think I will always prefer its live counterpart. On other tracks, however – most of them in fact – the production is neat, precise, and on point, and if the muffled feeling comes back here and there, it is not a chronical ailment and it cannot impair the quality of the whole.
It is not a concept album, but it is a cerebral one, with multiple narrative lines one can follow. In this frame, it’s pleasant to meet some old familiar songs and see them placed in a new context which adds more layers of meaning to them. To The Door, which always had some unlikely country suggestions blended into its sound, now gets the full western treatment when paired with Morricone-esque instrumental The Ballad of Calamity James. Those of us who delighted in belting out “Luella, babe, will you marry me now” when dark ballad Satan, Luella, and I was played at live gigs may feel briefly disheartened to find that, according to 149 (featuring guest vocalist Tallulah Eden, whose vocals are suitably haunting for the subject matter), “Luella threw her engagement ring in the river”, with dangerous consequences. Death Drive (still dirty, political, and stained with industrial rock) gets an unexpectedly melancholy epilogue in Nobody Stays in Love. And anyone who, like me, has had dalliances with the bogeyman of dysphoria will experience an unlikely but touching feeling of being deeply understood when pausing on the lyrics of the dyptich represented by Joanna and Where’s Joanna – the latter an old live favourite, both musically sounding like a demented fairytale, much more poignant and disturbing upon closer analysis.
Other songs don’t need a frame to deliver some rather raw emotion. This is the case with the quasi-ballad Mikey’s Song (which uses some pop chords to unexpected ends) and, most notably, with the midpoint oddity Why?, a haunting track with Japanese lyrics and an atmospheric electronic sound which came accompanied by an animated video with a surprisingly hopeful and emotional feeling.
HMLTD have always had an eclectic sound; they can afford it – one of the strengths of this band has always been a clear compositional skill, paired with the kind of slightly unhinged approach needed to choose to never have a recognisable ‘brand’ voice – but one worry in accosting West of Eden was that in a long player this may result in something disconnected, more a collection of singles than a true album. This did not happen; the record is clearly a coherent whole, partly thanks to a series of musical callbacks between tracks, partly to the narrative threads. The sound is a blend of punk, rock of various kinds (glam and industrial being notable), EDM, techno, and a number of other suggestions – and, perhaps surprisingly, very little pop. It feels very modern and, in a way, very fall-of-the-West.
Speaking of which: this is also a very political album. References to the title matter are everywhere, starting with The West is Dead, continuing through the mini-manifesto that is MMXX A.D. (“Don’t talk to me about the 21st Century/I am the 21st Century”) and climaxing in the formidable two last songs on the record. Blank Slate might well be the best song HMLTD have put out to date: musically sharp, intense, liberating, with full-bodied vocal and a multi-layered sound. War Is Looming sounds dark and has the lyrics to match, but is stark and sincere and a closer that promises more. Another pleasant surprise in these politically minded songs, though – they are combative, but not disheartened; in a time and industry where generational ennui has practically become a fad, they are refreshing to hear.
Overall, like most debut albums, West of Eden is not perfect. It is the product of a band fiercely devoted to their creative process, and this is clear both in its successes and its shortcomings. The former, however, outnumber the latter, and the courage and sincerity of it all is enough to compensate for any formal glitches. Perhaps it is pointless to ask whether this record was worth all the wait, but it’s good that it’s here now.