Charlie Nieland’s monumental “Hopeful Monsters,” drawing on material written for the The Bushwick Book Club, is perhaps the best album of 2016.
There’s something psychedelic about the opening track, “Nothing,” combining shoegaze with “Strawberry Fields”/“Sgt. Pepper”-era Beatles. This is beyond existentialism: this is an admission of the beautiful futility of the illusory world of forms and shapes that arise and then inevitably pass away before any real meaning can ever be gleaned from the shadows cast on the wall.
“I am nothing” and “There is nothing to defend.”
There are lyrics, and then there are lyrics. When a songwriter writes something like “The fire, you will learn, takes the shape of what burns,” they’ve gotta be able to hold their hands up and admit that there’s honestly no way this came out of their own mind: this came out of some greater consciousness, this came out of the ether, this is timeless.
Expanding from the tentative wash of guitars into the deliberate strumming of the acoustic guitar and the solid beat of Susan Hwang’s Janggu drum, the song mixes the ethereal and etheric with the earthy in a dreamy “Across the Universe” feel, before exploding with “Eleanor Rigby” violins and backing vocals over the return of the shimmering wash of shoegaze guitars. This is a song that begs for endless repeat listens. It’s a song that teases you into thinking ‘wouldn’t it be something to cover that song,’ all the while whispering in your ear ‘you’ll never really be able to play this thing, it’s kind of beyond you.’
The second track, “I Am Your Emperor,” comes creeping in, sinister and vaguely threatening, until it erupts in conquest and menace like a paranoid scaremongering Radiohead nightmare, piano and strings hammering into your head. Listening to this as we approached the precipice of the horror-show mischoice that was the election just past, I kept trying to avoid the obvious impression that this song is an apt soundtrack for the rise of a tyrant.
“Lost In Space,” with its guitar and bass sliding in echoey reverb delay and its poignant lost feeling of floating in a vacuum, weightless, seems to be about things drifting apart, coming to pieces, the inexorable drift and echo as the center cannot hold. Ostensibly using the device of Laika, the Moscow stray dog launched into outer space by the Soviets on Sputnik 2 in 1957, it could be the narrative of a man watching his earth spin away beneath him, powerless to stop the momentum that is pulling him away from the gravity of a body from which he is breaking orbit. It’s frankly heartbreaking.
The perfect counterpoint to the intensity of the opening tracks, “Lost In Space” offers a momentary but emotionally powerful pause before “Sacred King,” rich and full and involving with its strangely accomplished mix of accordion, Janggu drums, and Autoharp, a treatment of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
“Splitting” is itself split – one part languid sleepy shoegazy drift, invoking you to “wake up,” and one part accelerating chord progression reminding me in turns of The Cure’s “Three Imaginary Boys” and the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
Echoed 8 String Bass forms the main orchestration for the surprising “Passion Of The Lovers,” cello and violin entering later in the song: how is so much narrative and emotion conjured with so little instrumentation?
“All your fears … all your battles. All these kisses have you rattled.”
Written around the time of Bowie’s death, title track “Hopeful Monsters” has an obvious Bowie-esque influence at work in the chord progression. The placement of this epic song here, at this point of the album, gearing up for the final headlong push to the conclusion, is a masterful piece of album balancing, a lost art.
The final “la la”s of “Hopeful Monsters” blend into the opening “la la Ligeia” of the Edgar Allan Poe-inspired “Lady Ligeia,” the Janggu drums giving the whole proceedings a Dead Can Dance gothic backdrop.
Album-closer “Pickett’s Charge” perfectly conveys the horrible tragic carnage of senseless war, the narrative of the futile war-turning Confederate assault on Cemetery Ridge accompanied by haunting lap steel over military beat.
“We chose this way to hell.
The music of cannon fire scores the scene were we died for nothing.”
“Hopeful Monsters” presents 9 powerful, musically rich explorations of emotionally intense subject matter, an album that stays with you and does not lessen in power regardless of how many times you listen.
In my mind, perhaps only PJ Harvey’s “Hope Six Demolition Project” or Bowie’s “Black Star” can compete with “Hopeful Monsters” for album of the year.