For two albums, Boston's Hallelujah the Hills has been cranking out fuzzy but powerful rock tunes, ones full of tape hiss and static that aren't exactly lo-fi. Especially on their excellent last record, 2009's Colonial Drones, they used heavy layers of found sound and crackling guitars and vocals to convey the confusion and miscommunication that drove the record thematically. It wasn't fuzz for fuzz's sake, and no one would ever mistake HtH's brittle layers for a garage-band lack of ambition.
But quite a bit has changed on the great new record, No One Knows What Happens Next. For one, the band have their own label, Discrete Pageantry. But along with that, the sound has gotten quite a bit clearer, leaner. Opener "Get Me In A Room" rumbles to life on a clean run of drums and bass, before singer Ryan Walsh comes in with a clear baritone, confessing "It would be wrong for me to sing the blues." The ragged choir of voices we've come to expect from the band do come in on the towering chorus, and there's no lack of size here. But the size is different. You can hear all the parts. They all have a clarified strength to them. From the rolling shuffle of "Nightingale Lightning" to the moody space of "The Game Changes Me," No One Knows What Happens Next is an album that shimmers more than it grinds.
It's a curious shift because, as the title might imply, this is an album fascinated and focused on mortality. It's not dreading death or anything like that, but it is a set of songs always keeping their eye on where that sidewalk ends. "Dead People's Music" is all about romanticizing what's gone without recognizing it will happen to us to. Over a boozy, late-night sway, Walsh reminds us that "there's no use pretending this life is unending or cruel" even as he and his friends "play dead people's music and mistake the mere for more." On "People Breath Into Other People," the fascination is with life as something transactional, how we are capable of resuscutate one another, to bring us back from the brink if needed.
No One Knows What Happens Next is about acknowledging that brink. It's doesn't seek to demystify the strangeness of death, but rather to reconcile with that strangeness. Even as it tangles with the uncertain (yet totally certain) future, it also struggles with the past. Standout track "Hunger Ghost Extraordinaire" makes subtle but perfect use of singer Marissa Nadler's haunting backing vocals, and Walsh talks of a past where the narrator was "a gentleman crossed with a fiend." Despite his shortcomings, though, he's not all confession. "What they say about me is true," he admits, but then turns the table on his accusers, snarling "but what they say about you is too." On "Care to Collapse", the chorus is a travelogue of mistakes, vague admissions of "What I did in LA, what occurred in Boise" and so on.
Now is limbo between what's coming and what happened, but if that feels stagnant and dark, No One Knows What Happens Next is neither of those things. It's a propulsive rock record throughout, right up to the speeding burst of closer "Call Off Your Horses." Hallelujah the Hills is a unique band in that they use studio noises and disparate sound alongside the warm hum of horns, all over a guitar-bass-drums set up, but more so than ever on this new record, none of it is superfluous, and not of it is padding. Instead, it all enhances the hooks and the melodies. Horns brighten up "Call Off Your Horses" or "People Breathe Into Other People" but they also enhance the harmonies rather than drowning them out. In other words, they are woven in rather than laid on top.
The clarity of this record is a daring move for a band that has existed so firmly in the gauze, but it pays off at nearly every turn. Those carefully places pieces all come shining through and, if this is an album about accepting what's coming, it does so with not justa clear eye but also a quick tongue. Walsh once again proves himself a versatile lyricist, mixing the plainspoken declarations above with strange yet inciteful images like, on "Care to Collapse," when he says "winter's like a boxing match televised but turned down low." More than on previous records, though, we also get to truly hear the voice that delivers those words, and Walsh's voice is strong yet smoky at the edges. His voice, the words, the players, the hooks -- it all gets buffed up to shine (without making them blinding) in this new approach and, as Hallelujah the Hills steps out on their own turf with a new record label and a refined sound, they've also gone ahead and made their best record. So whatever does come next, they at least have this to show for what's already happened.