Fumbling Towards Ecstasy: The Hotelier's Fearless, Transcendent 'Goodness'

With so much at stake, the band made an album that is legitimately risky and got away with it.

May 26 2016, 1:30pm

My last notable memory of 2014 involved talking about the Hotelier, which means I spent the end of the year almost exactly how I spent the majority of it. At least this was at an American Football show, and not, say, a first date, small claims court case, or an annual job review (two of the three are true). By that point, the band’s album, Home Like NoPlace Is There, had already been anointed as the first unassailable, canonical document of fourth-wave emo, but the effect it had on the band was a little tough to quantify, especially by the metrics useful to indie rock bands: they had not been on any late night shows, were overlooked on basically every mainstream year-end list, were not playing mad 2 PM slots at weekend festivals, and so forth. In fact, the only time they technically headlined in Los Angeles was a few days before the release of Home Like NoPlace Is There—it was a five-band gig at the Bridgetown DIY venue in La Puente.

So I asked a fan of theirs who also happened to be a seasoned industry vet in this realm about where the band was headed. He’d thought it over and plotted out two likely outcomes: the first was a trajectory similar to Mineral, a band that brilliantly flamed out before they could damage their rep and also before they could capitalize on it. This was fair considering the seemingly unsustainable intensity of Home, frontperson Christian Holden’s anarcho-punk principles and touchy relationship with media; in fact, he’d probably tell you to ignore most of what I say here. In a newsletter to fans, Holden asked, “if you follow music writers who have the record/are talking about the record: tune them out. We are all really proud of this record, but we would like to let you all have your own personal relationship and reaction to our new material.”

The second path, surprisingly, was that of Brand New. Not in the sense that the Hotelier had become a band welcomed at any variation of Emo Night or that they’d even one day headline Madison Square Garden. Here was my friend’s explanation of the Brand New model: “They’ll make every wrong move that turns out to be the right move.”

In a recent Reddit AMA, the Hotelier named early 2k indie darlings like the Microphones and the Books as primary influences, so they likely don't see themselves in either comparison; moreover, they’re touring with Epoch bands Told Slant and Bellows. But much like Brand New, the Hotelier have jettisoned the potent, externalized anguish of early adulthood that pervaded their beloved previous record for a much longer, engrossing, and mature expression of incapacitating spiritual yearning. It’s a lot to handle at once, and prior to the premiere of Goodness last Thursday, here is an incomplete list of things that Hotelier fans had found to be questionable about the Hotelier’s third LP:

1. The nudity in the Goodness album trailer

2. The nudity on the Goodness album cover

3. The pixelated “edited” Goodness album cover

4. The reverb on Holden’s vocals in “Piano Player”

5. The volume of Sam Frederick’s snare drum

6. The Hotelier livestreaming a rehearsal of Goodness in its entirety on Periscope, which was posted on their Facebook page

7. The ethics of listening to an extremely poor quality rip of the Periscope performance

8. The premiere of “Soft Animal” on a Friday afternoon following the death of Prince

9. Christian Holden asking listeners to ignore everything music writers have said about Goodness, even the positive things

10. The extremely long lead time given to writers who have Goodness

11. The existence of Goodness on Juno Download, which could be listened to in its entirety in 30-second intervals

12. Why the Hotelier insisted on premiering the album at night

They had yet to hear the one-minute introduction of spoken word, which was disliked by 33 percent of the original members of Hotelier, according to an astoundingly thorough Stereogum profile. This is the first “wrong move” on Goodness, and there are many more.

Goodness immediately invokes Neutral Milk Hotel and R.E.M., bands from Athens, GA who collectively have not released any notable albums since 1998, have almost zero currency within punk circles, and almost completely disappeared as source material, even in indie rock. The compact bursts of catharsis are swapped out for expansive, spacious arrangements and songs where Christian Holden doesn’t even scream. Of the 13 tracks, four are interludes and two are nearly seven minutes long. There are several instances of glitchy production tricks which caused listeners to ask if they’d gotten a corrupted file. Holden’s lyrics on Home were one searing cry for help after another, the ones here are influenced by Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry and take on a more formalist, poetic tone, impressionistic and abstract. Home Like NoPlace Is There was thrilling spectator sport with life and death stakes, like watching Holden attempt to pull someone from a burning house nine different times in a half hour. The pastoral interludes on Goodness are directly influenced by Holden’s experience as a counselor at a Not Back to School Camp; there’s a shift from saving lives to nurturing them.

After that spoken word intro, “Goodness Pt. 2” is the origin story, elaborating on the album cover’s portrayal of the New England wilderness as an Edenic setting for spiritual rejuvenation. After two minutes of throbbing dissonance, there’s the full-band drop, every bit as satisfying as the one from Home’s opener, “An Introduction to the Album,” and even more surprising. Upon first listen, I pulled over to the side of the road, laughed out loud, and gave myself a fist pump. There’s always a sense of relief when a band that you love transcends greatness into otherworldliness. But with the Hotelier, I can’t recall the last time an indie rock band with so much at stake and so little security made a record that sounded legitimately risky and got away with it. I can barely think of any that even tried. This is exactly why Goodness feels like the most important indie rock record of 2016.

For all of the talk of their tectonic stylistic shifts, Tame Impala’s Currents and Arcade Fire’s Reflektor had a “too big to fail” aura about them, whereas Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest or Beach House’s Teen Dream or Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear or Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor or even Japandroids’ Celebration Rock simply did the same things from the previous album bigger and better, not necessarily differently. Moreover, these bands all had a surplus of goodwill: the Hotelier had only begrudging and late-arriving critical respect, attached to a genre that had never been given proper due even in the 90s and were on a true indie label. Considering Holden’s unorthodox tastes and anti-capitalist beliefs, there was a fair chance the Hotelier putting out a record that would satisfy themselves and confuse the shit out of everyone else.

But that’s not even covering the most potentially alienating aspect of it all. There was an alliance of tone and topic on Home Like NoPlace Is There, as it was full of raw, combustive punk songs that dealt in raw, combustive subject matter that are familiar to emotive punk rock: suicide, self-harm, gender dysphoria, political power dynamics. Even a cursory listen could draw people who simply felt indie rock had become too complacent and unwilling to actually rock. But with Goodness, the Hotelier not only promised a “love album,” but a love album that didn’t come with instructions.

Most often, love albums in rock music take two forms in which the listeners can instantly see themselves. There’s the “punks get happy” record, with PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea as perhaps the gold standard, with its most quoted lyric: “I can’t believe life’s so complex when I just wanna sit here and watch you undress.” This year brought us Savages’ Adore Life and White Lung’s Paradise in this category, and both indicated, to a certain degree, that most the problems that informed their earlier work are solved by getting laid. And then there’s the narrative, breakup concept record. There are too many of those to name.

The incredible thing about Goodness is that it somehow manages to be both at the same time: it’s open enough for endless interpretation, but not so vague that it makes the majority of those interpretations sound like windy bullshit. On the Hotelier’s purest pop song, “Two Deliverances,” Holden expresses a brilliant, complex yearning similar to Mineral’s “Gloria,” to make yourself a part of someone’s life and become something greater as a result; and yet, it also hints that there are some ways in which two people can be fundamentally incompatible. Likewise, the boundless “Sun” could easily be taken as a devotional (“will you lay with me forever?”); or you could take Holden’s lead and hear it as metaphor for a chronic giver’s inability to receive love in kind. “Soft Animal” is the most blistering, intense moment on the record, and when Holden yells, “MAKE ME FEEL ALIVE! MAKE ME BELIEVE THAT I DON’T HAVE TO DIE!”, the rest of the record buckles under the force of him feeling so deeply connected with another living thing—that’s way too much to put on any person, let alone a baby deer. And this is where Holden’s ideas of Goodness as an exploration of supernatural or Taoist love, rather than strictly romantic, start to take hold: the idea of goodness itself is too overwhelming to be shared by only two people.

In fact, Goodness feels like an inverse breakup record of sorts—that falling in love can put you in touch with the supernatural, but its loss restores a sense of belonging in the world at large. That’s a tough sell; pop music often tries to tell you that love will last forever or that your heartbreak is unique and all-consuming. “I don’t know if I know love no more,” Holden sings before “Piano Player” fades out. I chose to hear it as a sagely woman giving her blessing to a young couple falling in love even though, at some point, it will end. There’s maybe the brief glimmer of hope that he’s singing from the perspective of the older woman, that maybe even she doesn’t have it figured it out. Who does, really? When faced with the questions of how to be open, how to be loving, how to be good, baring it all and being unafraid to make the “wrong” moves is the best we can do.

Ian Cohen is on Twitter Like NoPlace Is There - @en_cohen