Album Review: HMLTD - 'West of Eden'
Louis shares his thoughts on London-based outfit HMLTD's debut album, which excels most when their typically maximalist production is somewhat restrained to reveal the raw emotion beneath.
West Of Eden is an album for the end of days. HMLTD are convinced that society will eat itself, and they intend this to be the cultural record that future historians will understand our demise by – in short, then, it’s an upbeat LP.
Former darlings of the music press, HMLTD have been chewed up and spat back out by the major label machine and have found themselves in the unusual position of releasing a debut album after the conversation around them has died down. But then again, you can’t escape the feeling that they couldn’t care less what is said about them – or maybe that they couldn’t care more. West Of Eden is filled with dichotomies, and this is just one of them. Although ostensibly a pop record, influences are drawn from with little care for their disparate natures, resulting in tracks that are almost Frankenstein-like in their construction. This is part and parcel of the narrative however; to HMLTD, we’re living through the end of days, so why concern yourself with such crude constructs as genre or style?
Indeed, these 15 tracks have two lyrical contexts, both looking outwards at the world around them and looking forwards to a possible future with uncharacteristic optimism. It is the tension between these focuses, and between so many other binary themes, that lends the album an urgency. Henry Spychalski, HMLTD’s frontman, seems to have two modes of delivery too – at times disaffected and condescending, and at others a fragile, vulnerable, almost operatic balladeer, laying all bare.
'Although ostensibly a pop record, influences are drawn from with little care for their disparate natures, resulting in tracks that are almost Frankenstein-like in their construction'.
There’s self-reference here. This is a band that have always been painfully conscious of their own mythology and how they are perceived. They painstakingly construct their narrative, pulling in past lyrics (the very first track is essentially a callback to a lyric from 3 years ago), and incorporating older material alongside the new. The way that they do this is fascinating. The inclusion of the cut To The Door – which was an early hit for them – is introduced by the new track The Ballad Of Calamity James, which ties the old and the new together very nicely indeed. The meta nature of the album is present in this move too; presenting two tracks as one is a trick they deploy throughout the album. There are varying degrees of success, however – by the time it’s used for tracks 9 & 10, Joanna and Where’s Joanna? respectively, the novelty has begun to wear off.
HMLTD are at their most brilliant when they constantly reinvent, and when they revisit themes too often, the momentum can begin to falter. Their concern for their own mythology is most apparent in the penultimate song, Blank Slate. Here they use the vehicle of a genuinely powerful pop song as a way to interpolate their own touchstones. Slide guitars point to the aforementioned Spaghetti Western trip of To The Door, while the warped background vocals put in mind the track Why?. These songs do not exist in a vacuum, they flirt with one another in a fascinating way.
The most accomplished moments here are courtesy of Spychalski dropping his detached demeanour and bringing to light moments of real beauty. Satan, Luella and I is not a new track, first coming to light in 2017, but it holds such melodrama that it simply can’t be overlooked. There’s real passion and longing, and the dread conjured up in the first half by the twin efforts of guitarists Duke and James is palpable. For such a maximalist project, the instrumentation used here can actually be really quite restrained. The guitars simply colour the mood, and it’s all the better for it. The mid-song pivot to a vaudeville groove is quite something, but easily the best moment in the track is the closing orchestral phrasing. The vulnerability of the line ‘soft, gentle stranger; Luella, babe, won’t you marry me now?’ is really quite poignant. There are other flashes of calm throughout the tracklist, with the mid-album breath of fresh air Why? being a really gorgeous example of what HMLTD can accomplish when they aren’t attempting to be as meta as possible.
'You see, his put-upon delivery is what lends so many tracks their grandeur and authority, but often it can end up detracting from the emotion present'.
The album ends with the acoustic number War Is Looming, which, although superficially a harbinger of doom, actually focuses in on small vignettes of human connection. This micro-macro relationship, of our crumbling society and the human emotion within it, is the true focus of the album. HMLTD find their muse in these small but defiant tales of dependence and debt.
Perhaps my greatest criticism of the album is also its greatest strength – Henry Spychalski. You see, his put-upon delivery is what lends so many tracks their grandeur and authority, but often it can end up detracting from the emotion present. However, the final phrase here forgives all. He states that ‘morning’s breaking, the world is ending, and it’s fine because all we ever want, ever were, is lost in time’. This is the last message of West of Eden – that this apocalyptic outlook is in many ways freeing. Be who you want, do what you want; after all, the world’s ending.