“Goodness is the only investment that never fails” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden
“We sit and we talk, not of much but of little,” begins the poem that forms the opening track, “N 43° 59′ 38.927″ W 71° 23′ 45.27” on The Hotelier’s new album Goodness. It’s a line that seems to summarize so much about the way humans interact with each other, but one that remains so beautifully simplistic and open-ended as well. Is this conversation between two people that know each other intimately, as the remainder of the poem would indicate? Then why couldn’t they find anything else to discuss? Does it even particularly matter? I’m not entirely sure, but I know for certain that there is something worth deeply analyzing in each and every line of Goodness. There is a depth and literary quality to the lyrics which far outstrips many of the band’s contemporaries, so I want to dig deep to find out the answers to these hypothetical questions and so many more.
The focus of Goodness‘ complex lyrics is a unilateral desire to discover why it is we love others and what that love means to your life, your faith, your self-perception, and your place within nature and society. These intense philosophical questions about one of the most complex, enthralling human emotions are near impossible to answer with one forty minute indie rock album, but it’s fascinating that vocalist/lyricist Christian Holden would even deign to ask them at all.
In order to break down this theme and how the striving for answers functions in Goodness, I figure the best way to approach it would be too break down some of the obvious influences on Holden’s lyrics, see how they approach the questions of love, self, and nature and see how Holden responds to or contrasts these influences within his own writing. It should be noted at the outset, however, that this review is certainly not going to be a review focused on the musical contributions of Goodness. Other critics have written great articles already on those aspects of the album and how they function. I, instead, will stick simply to a lyrical analysis.
Transcendentalism and the Cosmic Consciousness
The Transcendentalist movement was a movement which developed in the early 19th century in The Hotelier’s home state of Massachusetts, before growing into much of the New England region. It refers to, in the words of The New Inquiry, the “belief in the human spirit and its capacity for community, generosity, and stewardship; in what Whitman called ‘radical uniqueness,’ and in the vital connection to nature as a source of creativity and innovation. The effect is also the same: elevation, followed by freedom.”
Holden does seem quite obviously influenced by the Transcendentalist movement. Their spiritual being and desire to strip away the excesses of life, to live freely, openly, and honestly, is fundamental to the belief system of transcendentalists. Their outspoken campaigning for the Unschooling movement, as well as for anarchy, has much in common with many Transcendentalist’s desire for individualist anarchism.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most well-known Transcendentalists, spoke frequently about the individual’s right to self-governance:
Hence the less government we have the better–the fewer laws and the less confided power. The antidote to this abuse of formal government is the influence of private character, the growth of the Individual; the appearance of the principal to supersede the proxy.
Emerson was also a believer in the Cosmic Consciousness. He believed that the experiences of first love, or powerful, life-changing, but impermanent love, can bring one on the path towards the Cosmic Consciousness. Though the love itself remains no less beautiful, it is only when it is taken away or goes away that one can seek the “virtue and wisdom” within one’s soul.
In Emerson’s first series of essays, in an essay called “Love,” he wrote:
But this dream of love, though beautiful, is only one scene in our play. In the procession of the soul from within outward, it enlarges its circles ever, like the pebble thrown into the pond, or the light proceeding from an orb… Then he passes from loving them in one to loving them in all, and so is the one beautiful soul only the door through which he enters to the society of all true and pure souls. Thus are we put in training for a love which knows not sex, nor person, nor partiality, but which seeks virtue and wisdom everywhere.
I believe Holden takes much of his philosophy for Goodness from his fellow Massachusetts statesman’s musings on transient love. Holden flirts with this idea of the impermanence of love throughout Goodness. The second verse of “Piano Player,” in which Holden locks eyes with a women who has discovered something in her past loves, displays the dream of love which Emerson wrote about: “An older ma’am sets herself straight and then she smiles with 88 remembered loves and morning suns until her woven heart was sung.” This women has a brightness that radiates through her, and in this brightness Holden recognizes that unmistakable virtue and wisdom Emerson wrote of.
Later on in the album, though, Holden displays an inability to reckon this transience, the incapability to move on from past loves and find wisdom within the Cosmic Consciousness. On Two Deliverances, Holden confronts this conflict head on:
I can’t drop my history just to become new
Now I’m swimming through the nothingness and the absolute
But I couldn’t ask this of you.
A multitude of lines throughout the album display Holden’s distrust of the Transcendentalist ideology of love’s impermanence. On “You, In This Light” they speaks of the “concept of never,” which I perceive to be a more nihilistic take on the belief of finding infinite virtue: “One in the same and what am I to be after / Dancing in private with the concept of never?.”
So perhaps Transcendentalism’s, Emerson’s especially, view of past and present love is not tangible or attainable enough to Holden. Perhaps Goodness can be viewed as looking for more immediate answers to the question of why and how we must live, love, and interact with others. Another Transcendentalist writer, Henry David Thoreau, looked at life in a much more unmediated, day-to-day sense which may have more thoroughly appealed to Holden. His most well-known writings came from a secluded pond just an hour drive from The Hotelier’s hometown.
Walden Pond and Freeing Naturalism
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is perhaps more often known in the canon of English literature as that boring book with no plot high school English teachers give their students. But there is so much more at work within its pages from a philosophical perspective that the book remains worthy of repeated study some almost two centuries later.
Thoreau was uniquely curious about why so many people live lives of frustration, temptation, consumerism, and general malcontent. As he put it, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation… We live our lives, day in and day out, in a state of constant struggle, a striving to be better, brighter, warmer than we are, and we become upset with ourselves when we are unable to achieve that.” Thoreau, in deciding to live in the woods for a period of time, hoped to strike up something within himself, away from the complex struggles of civilization.
Goodness’s album cover, which you can see at the top of the page, is the first indication that the album strives for the same escapism. The cover, which I will touch upon later, is a visual indication of the album’s naturalism and its ties to Walden’s philosophy. But there are so many references to the natural world and its influence in our relationships with others, our faith in a higher power, and our connection to our childhood memories and experiences.
This relationship to our childhood memories is most present in the interlude tracks on the album “N 43° 33′ 55.676″ W 72° 45′ 11.914″” and “N 42° 6′ 3.001″ W 71° 55′ 3.295.”” During each of these tracks, the nursery rhyme “I See the Moon” is lightly sung in wistful fashion, while the background features nature sounds- birdsongs and leaves rustling. The tracks instantly recall memories of simpler times, and the liner notes further accentuate these feelings of escapism to the natural world by noting that the first of the tracks was recorded under a total lunar eclipse outside in Plymouth, Vermont, while the second was recorded under a waning gibbous moon in Charlton, Massachusetts.
But childhood memories are not all that Holden discovers about themselves on Goodness. The album is rife with imagery of rediscovering a lover under the new light of morning or evening. It is in the opening track (“You in this light feels new, woken.”), and is certainly present in the aforementioned “You, In This Light” (“You in this light feels like a thing I can’t remember / Clutching you close your body felt like December.”) There seem to be numerous examples of this type of imagery throughout the album. But nowhere is this better shown than on “Sun,” a song which begins with an ode to the escapism of nature:
You and I’d escape the night and call it summering
I’d hold your rays and ride for days while you spin endlessly
The song continues on, explicating the uncertainty of the relationship, and hoping that the significant other will take that same leap towards the simplicity that the natural world offers:
Will you lay with me where the sun hits right? / When the tired days can’t remember / How a blurring haze came across your eyes / Will you lay with me forever?
There are numerous moments like this throughout the album, but I can’t possibly cover them all. Instead, I want to devote time to discussing how Holden pulls from the works of two well-known poets, Mary Oliver and Walt Whitman.
The Love Poetry of Mary Oliver and Joyous Introspection
Mary Oliver, the contemporary American poet name-dropped in “Soft Animal,”- a song which itself was named after a line in her poem “Wild Geese”- is a fitting reference-point for The Hotelier’s lyrical focus on Goodness. Her poetry is greatly influenced by the Transcendentalism movement of a century and a half earlier. She writes in much the same way of the pull from nature, as well as the desire to find wisdom and virtue in the end of past relationships.
But in many ways, her status as a contemporary poet and removal from the context and conversations of the Transcendentalism movement allow her to expand upon and respond to the ideologies present in that time. In her poem, “Going to Walden,” she confronts the narrative of escapism and freedom in Walden:
Going to Walden is not so easy a thing
As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult
Trick of living, and finding it where you are.
As she said, escaping into nature, living deliberately in the woods of Walden Pond is the easier task. Finding the same ability to suck the marrow out of live, to find the trick of living where you actually live your day-to day-life, is so much more difficult. She has a dexterity as a writer which has allowed her, “the ability to move fluidly between individual consciousness and identification with nature,” according to literary scholar Diane S. Bonds¹.
I see much of that same dexterity in Holden’s writing on Goodness, especially on standout “Soft Animal” a song which contains the two planes of consciousness Bonds argued Oliver worked in. The identification with nature is apparent in the chorus, with Holden insisting upon a baby deer they saw in the woods, “Fawn doe, light snow. Make me feel alive, make me believe that I don’t have to die.” But the “individual consciousness,” the pull of the world, instead of the natural escapism, is snapped into the narrative by the gunshots of hunters: “The firing of rifles off / The echo hits you hard enough”
Because the title of “Soft Animal” comes from the Oliver poem “Wild Geese,” and the song actually name-drops Oliver, the poem seems like an apt comparison to the album for me to bring up . “Wild Geese” was actually written by Oliver in an exercise of the poetic form of end-stopped line, or a poem where each line ends in a period.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
This form seems to impart a sense of immediacy, and urgency, in Oliver’s words which commands the reader’s attention from the outset. Unlike the Mary Oliver poem, “End of Reel,” Goodness’ closing track plays with enjambment, Holden’s words flowing over into the next line in the middle of a syntactic thought with the pauses between the lines being emphasized dramatically. This structure imparts much less a sense of urgency than Oliver’s own, which gives the song’s vocal performance a sort of lilting tonality as if it was swaying in a summer breeze.
Goodness, present and hallowed,
is thanking walls of the shallow
Embankments for flowing in over the
Ranks of soldiering messes of
Dayglow blades scorched by hovering halos
Washing away until I don’t even cringe at the thought of you.
Furthermore, it seems the work of Oliver is similarly concerned with the idea of the Cosmic Consciousness. Oliver again and again speaks of the inter-connectedness of all living things; of being in love with a feeling, a tree, and in more ways than one, in love with people. The most vivid of these depictions is in “Of Love,” in which she states:
Love, love, love, it was the
core of my life, from which, of course, comes
the word for the heart. And, oh, have I mentioned
that some of them were men and some were women
and some—now carry my revelation with you—
were trees. Or places. Or music flying above
the names of their makers. Or clouds, or the sun
which was the first, and the best, the most
loyal for certain, who looked so faithfully into
my eyes, every morning. So I imagine
such love of the world—its fervency, its shining, its
innocence and hunger to give of itself—I imagine
this is how it began.
I can’t help but think how different Oliver’s perspective is on “Of Love” is from most love poetry. It’s a warm embrace of everything that surrounds her, a rush and constant feeling of love. I feel that that emotion is what Holden attempts to do, and I would argue succeeds at doing, on Goodness.
The thing perhaps most striking about Mary Oliver, however, is her ability to explicate human emotions in ways that few have ever been able to:
“The Uses of Sorrow” – Mary Oliver
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
“Work, Sometimes” – Mary Oliver
What are we sure of? Happiness isn’t a town on a map,
or an early arrival, or a job well done, but good work
It is in this trait, I think we find the most in common between Holden and Oliver. Holden is at times remarkable in his ability to craft a couplet which seems to present just unconditional hope or mournful loss. At times on Home, Like Noplace is There, the scales seemed too far titled towards to sorrowful, but on Goodness the base level emotion is certainly skewed towards an ever-present hope.
There is, for example, this verse in “Piano Player”:
You decompress and fall away, but this floor is raised on beams of trust and there’s room enough for both of us so stay. Sustain.
Or, what I view as the most hopeful moment on the record, in “End of Reel,” when Holden grasps on to a fleeting, perfect moment of bliss and hangs on to it:
The kind of thing that hangs inside a moment
A kiss of good that’s temperate and golden
That permeates the surface of the woven
And seeps into the piece of you inside of my head
He lets this memory envelop him, pervade into the deep recesses of his brain until it becomes inextricably linked to the person he loves. It’s a beautiful moment, and it’s one worth celebrating.
Song of Myself and The Afterlife
Depending on your view of literature, “Song of Myself” is either the most remarkable or the most egotistical poem of the 19th century. I fear there is no way to possibly touch upon all the ways Walt Whitman’s magnum opus has influenced Goodness, just as it has much of American art since the moment it was released, but I will try to quickly summarize some key lines from “Song of Myself” that I feel relate back to Goodness.
I keep think about all of the references to the sounds of nature: the calls of different animals, the sounds of wind howling. Nowhere is this more present than in the second verse of “End of Reel”: “Shapeless his hanging over the mixes of midnight of twilight/ it passes, dims to make space and suspend / While she’s singing her swan song again. / It got stuck in my head as the sound of you.” There seems to be a musicality Holden finds which seems to be consistently there throughout the album; the ever-present constancy of nature.
Whitman, too, confronts this constancy in “Song of Myself”:
I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of
flames, clack of sticks cooking my meals.
I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice,
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the
day and night…
I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,
Ah this indeed is music — this suits me.
In the end, Whitman concludes these sounds that make up daily life are just as much a part of the symphony as composed music, if not even more so. These sounds represent life continuing on, long after the last notes of the song are played. And life, Whitman argues, is not quite as simple as a matter of dying, as he notes throughout Song of Myself that the atoms that make up the human self once belonged to someone else, and they will belong to someone else yet again soon enough. As he notes:
Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I
While it’s easy to take a fatalist view of this quote out of context, what Whitman is trying to argue is that the act of dying is not an immediate movement into the nothingness of the Universe. It is the shifting from one existence to another, freeing up your atoms to birth new life, while allowing your Soul to carry on.
Similarly, Holden has referred to Goodness as a “Taoist love record” and with that said the Taoist view of existence and the afterlife seems central to the record’s focus on experiential learning. Taoists are not particularly concerned with death, nor are they taught to fear it, as so many in other cultures are. Instead, the person should strive to live their present life as fully and well as possible. Whatever happens after death is just the natural balance restoring itself with life. Death represents the path to greater knowledge, the way in which one can embrace the answers that come with the experience of the end of life.
On That Album Cover
I think I would be remiss in speaking of Goodness as a collective work of art if I didn’t bring up the album cover, which has inspired a great bit of controversy and discussion of its artistic merits. The cover features eight nude men and women posing comfortably arm-in-arm against the backdrop of a forest clearing, is the sort of instantly iconic image which seems to altogether court this type of almost-involuntary backlash, including the creation of an over-corrected pixelated censored cover above.
To me, the cover of Goodness is not in any way offensive. It’s a salient image of freedom and comfort in the natural world, and functions well as a symbol of how closed off we are in our day-to-day lives, how hesitant we are to open ourselves up, physically and emotionally, to other people. The cover actually reminds me of a Marcel Duchamp art installation I once saw at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, titled Étant donnés. The installation presents itself as a wooden door, set away from the main room of the exhibit. The door is fairly non-descript, but nearby there is a sign to look through a hole in the door. What I saw when I looked through took my breath away. Inside is a statue of a completely nude reclining woman holding a gas lamp, lying in a field of grass.
You can view the installation here (but I must caution it is similarly not safe for work). The work is a striking, visceral piece of art on its own- the way the women is partially out of sight belies a true understanding of what is happening or has happened to her, but it works on many more levels than that. It’s deliberately challenging. It makes you expect something, as you walk up to the door, and then circumvents that expectation completely.
Goodness’ cover, to me, functions in a similar fashion, subverting the traditional norm for the album cover, especially in alternative music where such an image is well outside of the norm. In doing so, it makes you debate the importance and relevance of the album art to the piece of music it is trying to promote.
At some point in the future, someone may write a book about The Hotelier’s catalog in the canon of the American art tradition. Who knows? Maybe that someone will be me. There is so much to unpack here in terms of the thematic content of the record, the hyper-textual way in which Holden crafts his lyrics, the deliberate and unconscious ways Holden and company connect back to two-plus centuries of literary and musical steps forward.
The Hotelier’s Goodness is a monumental piece of art and a tremendous step forward for the alternative music scene commonly referred to as the “emo revival,” even before a single note or melody of the music, itself so vibrant, densely-layered, and vital, is even brought up. Goodness is a record I know I will keep coming back to again and again, finding something new to love each and every time, falling in love with the little details.
I keep returning to that opening poem, and how Holden seems to be fixated on this idea of speaking, “not of much but of little,” and I think of how often we talk about our problems in veiled, sheltered speech. I am reminded of a series of lines later in the same poem, “This place speaks, it says many things of nothing / Makes no demands and offers no salvation / Only repeats what you say in a way you’ve never heard it.” The place in these lines is what Goodness is to me. It’s an album that confronts the emptiness of the “nothing” head on. It’s an album that takes in all that you pour into it, and then returns to you a perspective you may have never experienced otherwise.
And with that I want to leave you with my favorite Mary Oliver poem that I found over the course of my researching for this review. It’s a poem that I feel is inextricably thematically linked to Goodness and the way I have just argued it functions. The poem is titled “I Want To Write Something So Simply.”
I want to write something
or about pain
as you are reading
you feel it
and as you read
you keep feeling it
and though it be my story
it will be common,
though it be singular
it will be known to you
so that by the end
you will think—
no, you will realize—
that it was all the while
yourself arranging the words,
that it was all the time
words that you yourself,
out of your heart
had been saying.