[5 May 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Boston’s Hallelujah the Hills have taken another giant step forward with their new record, Have You Ever Done Something Evil?. The album follows 2012’s excellent No One Knows What Happens Next and sounds like a propulsive, muscled expansion of all its predecessor’s impressive charms. These are epic songs still knotted and coiled up in all kinds of complex tensions. The surprising tempo and textural shifts from the band echo perfectly the twisting narratives, detailed lives, and clever phrases that fill frontman Ryan Walsh’s lyrics. These songs are expansive, even all encompassing in their sound and fury, but deeply personal in their impact. Album to album, Hallelujah the Hills have gotten better and better, making it harder and harder to top themselves. And yet Have You Ever Done Something Evil? is their finest statement yet, no small feat when you consider how good the band’s previous three records were. Below, Ryan Walsh has offered us some insight into the songs that comprise the album, revealing some hidden details and leaving others nicely shrouded in mystery. PopMatters is pleased to premiere Have You Ever Done SomethingEvil?, out May 13 on Discrete Pageantry Records.
“We Are What We Say We Are”
I wanted to start the album with a giant disaster, like a sci-fi action movie, so I crashed the Moon into Earth in the first 30 seconds of the opening song. There’s a mass extinction, but most people are able to come back to life if they simply insist that they are still alive. I feel like what happens in the last minute of this song is something we’ve been trying to achieve since our first album.
“Try This Instead”
This is a love song.
“Destroy This Poem”
This is a revenge song. It’s about a couple coming back for the cretins that tried to put them out to pasture. I am a BIG fan of spoken word mid-sections (listen to this) and I’m glad we put one into “Destroy This Poem”. The narrator is talking very calmly, steadily here, but the last line of that talking section definitely implies all hell is about to break loose. “There’s a lot of people claiming I got no skin in the game”—I love a line like this because it makes you dream about what the specifics could be, but is also very conversational. You might hear someone say this on the bus, or while being interviewed on CNN.
“Do You Have Romantic Courage?”
When, in the studio, our producer Dave Drago said he thought this song felt like us doing Motown, I started trusting him 100%. That’s exactly the intent here. The second verse refers to what used to be sung in that verse. It’s not my interest to become super meta and go down a rabbit hole of recursive self-references but, again, I do want to capture the peculiarities of conversation rhythms in my lyrics. People speak about how they’re self-editing while relaying a story to you, all the time. “Oh, oh, I’ll get back to that part later” or “I can’t tell you exactly what they said next, BUT…,” etc. If we still lived in the era of the mixtape, I believe this would’ve had a very good chance of being a staple of new-relationship-mixes.
“I Stand Corrected”
I hate talking on the phone. I can never get the rhythm right. I had a bad conversation with an ex-girlfriend one night and wished that an automated phone survey could kick in to check on what she thought about the call. So, the lyrics in this song represent that automated-phone-poll-script, but pretty quickly the automated-poll takes on a mind of its own and starts to go off book and make declarations and other alarming statements. The structure of this song is unusual. Nothing really repeats, it keeps progressing and changing. It’s hard to do that and end up with a song that will get stuck in your head, which hopefully this does.
I’ve decided not to talk about the lyrical content of this song because I’m not sure I can add any context or explanation to what’s already there. The album title came from this song. This awesome thing happened on Twitter where comedian Norm Macdonald started talking about his own theory of what actually happened in the final Breaking Bad episode right after it aired. People were tweeting him stuff like, “but the writer said this was his intent in a recent interview.” Norm replied, “You must never trust what an author says about his work. What he has to say is all in the work. If he had more, he would include it.” I LOVE this sentiment and it’s definitely true for “Home Movies”.
“A Domestic Zone”
Starting to live with someone can feel like waking up in a dream, or a nightmare. In this song, we have a couple who are paranoid of everything around them in their new living situation, as if their house itself is going to come alive and swallow them whole. They don’t want to refer to the house using the word “house” because they’re worried that naming it gives it power, so they call it “a domestic zone”.
“Pick Up An Old Phone”
When people think of communicating with people from the future, or the past, or the dead, I feel like they either think of something super-technically-advanced OR an occult séance. For some reason, I think of old rotary phones. This song contains my favorite lyric of the album, “It’s a National Anthem / But I can’t place the country.”
“The Possible Nows”
“I’m cycling through the possible nows” is another way of saying you’re frozen by a sheer volume of choices. “There’s something we forget when we’re born” is a Zen-like riddle that can maybe break you out of that loop of endlessly cycling through the possible nows. The verse lyrics are all possible nows.
“MCMLIV (Continuity Error)”
This song is the story of a film director who’s romantically involved with the leading lady in his film. There’s always power struggles in relationships, so think about how much weirder and strained that can get when you add a shared creative process into the mix! He’s the director, but does he hold any sway over her when the camera stops rolling? Near the end of the song he’s directing her from behind the camera, shouting into his bullhorn, “Break our hearts!,” over and over again. The line between the movie and their relationship is so porous at that moment, it’s just about invisible.
Creativity and the occult take center stage in “Phenomenology”. We let ghosts take the guitar solos on this one. And no, I won’t clarify that.
“You Got Fooled”
The members of this band are some of my favorite people on Earth and I can’t believe how lucky I am to play with them. They are ridiculously talented. “You Got Fooled” is a great Whitman’s Sampler of everyone’s tremendous talents. Everyone is firing on all cylinders here. This is the only song we didn’t record in Macedon, NY. We learned the song a few days before the recording session at Q Division. Hallelujah the Hills rarely has long, extended instrumental sections in our songs, but we felt entirely comfortable placing one into this song. This song is HtH having A LOT of fun. In the past, I might have never considered ending an album this way. Someone screams “You got fooled” and then we hypnotize ourselves into two minutes of drone-rock. Finally, this seems like the perfect use of our time.
This is my favorite Hallelujah the Hills album, and I think it’s also our best by a large margin. Please, try not to let your first listen be at your work desk with the volume barely up. For Christ’s sake, this fucking thing requires volume. Thank you for listening.
5/19 - Los Angeles, CA - The Mint
5/20 - San Francisco, CA - Hemlock Tavern
5/21 - Oakland, CA - The New Parish
5/22 - Los Angeles, CA - Viper Room
5/23 - Santa Monica, CA - TRiP
5/25 - Los Angeles, CA - UCB Theatre
5/30 - Allston, MA - Great Scott