It’s nice to know in May that I’ve heard what will probably be my favorite album of this year. The fourth studio album by the Brooklyn-based band Hem, Departure and Farewell, sounds like a goodbye album that might not actually be one. The album’s title and several of the songs’ titles (“Last Call,” “So Long,” etc.) seem to suggest that this may be the band’s farewell. The group’s founder/songwriter Dan Messé has called it both a breakup album and a reunion album. Certainly, the album’s themes are consistent with that notion; each song draws on motifs of either leave-taking or homecoming.
Seven years have passed since Hem’s previous effort, Funnel Cloud, was released in 2006. Hem’s players have been through a lot since then, including the dissolution of two band members’ marriages, as well as the principal songwriter’s descent into and recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. Messé provides a glimpse of that struggle on the song “Tourniquet”: “The prospectors still search for highs in the heights / ‘Til their first bloody nose which they laugh off despite / How it seems that whatever gets left in the bar / Just becomes a part of Brooklyn / And here we are.”
Back in February of 2006, I was fortunate to hear Hem perform an intimate concert at Berklee College of Music here in Boston. My memory of the entire evening is especially vivid. After dinner with a friend at an Indian restaurant around the corner from the venue, we walked to the concert through a slow-motion snowfall that I’ve experienced on only one or two other occasions in nearly twenty years of living in the city. It was a bitterly cold night, but there was no wind to cause the snow to blow or drift, so it just fell unhurriedly until it reached the ground. By the time I was in my front-row seat, I already felt like I was in a comfortably hypnotic daze.
The show was as magical as the snowfall. I was grateful to chat a bit with Dan Messé and the band’s vocalist Sally Ellyson in the lobby afterwards, and I’m so glad that I had a chance to tell Dan in person that I think his songs are brilliant. They both signed Sally’s copy of the evening’s set list for me. (I still have it tucked away inside the booklet of my Funnel Cloud CD.) Back out into that otherworldly snowfall we all went, a snowfall that felt more cinematic than realistic, which is an appropriate description of Hem’s music itself.
A mixture of folk and chamber pop, Hem’s songs somehow sound orchestral even when there’s no orchestral accompaniment. In fact, my favorite songs from their early catalog — “Sailor,” “The Fire Thief,” “Pacific Street” — do feature an orchestra, a trend that’s continued on their latest disc. This lends Messé’s songs the touch of classicism that his lyrics deserve. He usually approaches his subjects through a sunny haze or across a watery distance, preferring a floating approximation to exactitude, though he does also have exactitude at his disposal when necessary. I remember he mentioned being obsessed with Rickie Lee Jones’ 1981 masterpiece Pirates, and it’s a lyrical style that she, too, has employed for many years now.
Folk music has long been about traveling: on foot, by train, over water, in cars, along dusty country roads. Departure and Farewell is also largely concerned with travel. The sense of reprieve in the music is always balanced by a sense of loss. On the opening title track, the travel is both an exterior and an interior journey: “The summer folds the afternoon, / And pins a shadow to the lawn, / And sweeps across the empty room / Where I am gone.” How do we find again the path inside ourselves when we’ve gotten hopelessly lost? That’s the band’s mission on this album.
Surprising, then, that the songs are so often rapturous, though also not surprising since melancholy and bliss are a pairing that Hem has become known for mastering. Likewise, these songs brush up equally against rebirth (“Things Are Not Perfect in Our Yard,” “The Seed”) and death (“Walking Past the Graveyard, Not Breathing”). Hem instrumentalist Steve Curtis’ song “The Jack Pine” similarly relies on the metaphor of a forest fire to explore the end of a long romance. About half of the time, Hem’s songs come across as hymns, while the other half of the time, they lean in the direction of literate children’s songs (“Seven Angels,” “Gently Down the Stream”). “Bird Song” owes an open and faithful debt to Neil Young’s classic track “Birds.”
Beyond the midway point, the album inhabits a dream, familiar territory for Hem, but it’s a strategy that reaches full maturity here. This maturity culminates on “Last Call,” a song that immerses itself in a drowsy, drunken high, underscored by a lilting choir and Gary Maurer’s precisely drifting guitars. The final effect is for the band to be swept away, out into a dark and moonless night: “Last call when the waters came / Rushing in at our feet. / Let’s tear the door from the frame / And float off down the street.”
Listening to an album like this, so rife with the complications of love and human interaction, always makes me wonder why people put up with the hassles of relationships at all, unless it’s because they’re trained to expect to put up with them. Then they pay the penalty and the price. Hem’s Departure and Farewell is, at its eloquently wistful heart, a record about loneliness and overcoming it.