Palana is a beautiful stroke of orchestrated music, a three dimensional portrait of an ever-questioning soul, which goes out with a graceful, trickster smile.
Charlie Hilton cites Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf as a particular inspiration for her solo debut, Palana, but it’s Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund that it really reminds me of. Narcissus and Goldmund is a portrait of a young, romantic sculptor (Goldmund) in the middle ages, in fierce pursuit of his craft, continually sidetracked by love and sex. It’s about him trying to locate that all so frustrating balance between love, contemplation and ambition. Palana, besides being an impressive collection of music, has that same blend of deep introspection and romance.
Palana starts off on a touching conceptual note. She seems to be taking stock as she addresses her younger self, saying, “I never thought that I could walk away from you /... I needed to become someone else.” Indeed, Hilton dove into the world of music, making two great records as part of indie rock outfit Blouse. They were both examples of air-tight indie rock -- thick with bedroom haze but dipping into bigger studio traditions like krautrock and dance rock. The aesthetic of Palana is a confident affirmation of that path. It’s a pastiche of Hilton’s fastidious collection of sounds, some borrowed from Blouse, others more newly come by. The blend of programmed and acoustic elements is novel and well-orchestrated; Kraut-infused psychedelia (“Long Goodbye”) borders Auto-tuned Nick Drake balladry (“Funny Anyway) and a side B filled with gorgeous horn freakouts (“The Young”, “Snow”). It’s as she sings on the excellent “Something for Us All", “I can’t find the edges to the stages that I’m on.”
That undeniable sonic confidence finds contrast in her introspective lyrical content. On tracks like “Snow", she considers the personal costs of growth and change. She describes coming home to a place that should feel comfortable but now feels alien: “Why do they say I’m not the same” and she asks, “what do they know?” Her deadpan vocal delivery, one of the only consistent sounds on the record, heightens a sense of drama. Her objective cadence casts little judgement on the happy and the sad. And it can get pretty sad, even if she fights it. On “Funny Anyway”, she sings, “Put your arms around me, tell me I’m ok / even though I’m not laughing it’s funny anyway."
Ultimately, Palana finds its apotheosis in its romance, which has a Dylan-like high drama to it. On so many great Dylan records, a feeling of crisis (i.e meaninglessness or aloneness) was met with a solution or a savior. On Nashville Skyline, it was a Big Brass Bed, on Blonde on Blonde, there was no solution, man; on Street Legal, it was Christ. On Palana, the sense of crisis is rife. There’s a great breakup song (“Why”) describing two newly alienated exes fiercely tracing the root of the problem (“I’ve made all the calculations / think we’ve turned the tide / then / I’m reminded why”). There’s also a beautiful-while-it-lasts ode to a “Long Goodbye”, a revery to her “belvedere", “the picture of love", a lover who is so close to real but is unable to transcend metaphors of art.
The climactic song suite, “The Young” & “No One Will", both buoyed with emotional strings and horns, bears a reconciliation of adult love with her hang ups about youthful ambition and change. On “The Youth”, she sings, “all our work will travel on / and leave us nothing to drink from / but this is not the time / to be alone and worry / it might mean something to the young.” It's a touching summation of ideas which echo Dylan’s “My Back Pages", (“I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”) In “No One Will", she sings, “you’re non-fictional / you’re as true as the line that lies on the horizon / I know you’re something classical / you’re the only thing I believe in.” If Hilton’s arrival at love and stability has almost messianic overtones, it’s because she’s already made a lucid case for it’s importance. In “Let’s Go to a Party", her disarmingly romantic hook echoes the main point of Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody”, when she sings, “I’m only happy / when I’m dancing / when I’m dancing / for you.”
Lights fade as the final track, “100 Million", a Blood on the Tracks-style guitar blues lightens the mood. Palana is a beautiful stroke of orchestrated music, a three dimensional portrait of an ever-questioning soul, which goes out with a graceful, trickster smile. Hilton sings, “We fall in love, but we keep falling, don’t we?”