[11 July 2014]
Say Hi’s Eric Elbogen has a well-documented fascination with vampires. 2006’s Impeccable Blahs was exclusively about the pulse-challenged, and even before that, “Poor Pete Is a Bit Self-Conscious” told the story of a wayward wanna-be bloodsucker. No surprise then that the first half of Endless Wonder is the aural equivalent of watching a vampire dance party underwater. “Such a Drag” is all dark and sticky with twitchy guitars and tinkling bells. The narrative voice of “Hurt in the Morning” could easily be a contrite vampire (maybe a grown-into-his-fangs Pete) apologizing to his drained victim as he retreats from the gathering daylight. The root of Elbogen’s fascination is unclear. Maybe it’s the timelessness of vampires—Elbogen is nearing 40 but makes perma-young music, all angst and heartache over moody soundscapes. Or maybe it’s the late hour in which he writes that makes him feel connected to the undead—Say Hi began (originally as Say Hi to Your Mom) in the early 2000s as an insomnia-fueled project that sounded not unlike a strummy Owen Ashworth.
Time, experience, and better recording equipment have stepped up Elbogen’s sound to the point that Endless Wonder is the best-produced work of his career, and it more or less sounds exactly like one would expect of Say Hi at this point: deeply plucked guitar, ghostly keyboard, groovy bass, drunk synths, and digital detritus (clicks and bangs, to steal a title off the album). The most notable aspect of Endless Wonder is its most intangible—how it represents the culmination of a slow progression in Elbogen’s sound, album by album over 12 years, without becoming staid or way out of touch. On early tracks like “Kill the Cat”, he whispered and mumbled and yowled over spare arrangements, a self-conscious delivery borne out of, one could easily imagine, self-consciousness.
Over the course of eight studio albums, he has continually built on the sound hinted at in early releases, filling out the soundscapes and turning his mumble into a syrupy M. Ward croon. While his sound has changed, the heart of his songwriting remains the same, coalescing around a particular set of emotions. Insecurity. Heartache. Regret. Longing. He gives lyrical stimuli on the emotional register of Sun Kil Moon but with the inescapably catchy beat of a dark surf band. Endless Wonder is distinctly cleaved in two: the vampire dance party first half, and the more sedate second half. “Clicks and Bangs” is a determined love letter that could be scaled up to an arena level, while “Sweat Like the Dew” is an austere piano-driven piece. This kind of mid-album divide can easily ruin a record’s momentum, but here it actually pulls the album together and makes it feel complete.
Watching Elbogen’s career has been like watching a turtle come out its shell in slow motion, and Endless Wonder is perhaps Say Hi’s most fully realized album to date. He’s not as paranoid or forceful as on, say, The Wishes and the Glitch, where a track like “Spiders” was a poetic self-doubt anthem, but he’s more confident, and Endless Wonder sounds almost sure of itself. Like Elbogen’s stumbling, bumbling, imperfect characters who learn lessons along the way, he’s getting better at it all the time.