Goodness by the Massachusetts-based band The Hotelier is an album about nature. It’s about nature in the way that every album, every film, every piece of literature is about nature. It is in part about our relationship to the physical world around us, but even more so its about our relationship to each other, the way our bodies and minds ritualistically convene and pull apart in cycles like the moon pulling and pushing the tides. Goodness is about how our connections transcend the physical, or perhaps descend to the level of the uncivil nature around us in beautiful and sorrowful ways. Even the album cover, a photo of a nude congregation of elderly folk in a forest clearing (censored at the top of the piece), denotes a kind of serenity in the equilibrium of allowing yourself to be, as front man Christian Holden yelps on the album, “withered down to our basic components.” It’s ambitious, it’s cathartic, it’s beautiful, it’s simply a hallmark of emo and indie rock in the 2010s.
To provide slight perspective, I feel the album that came before Goodness, Home Like NoPlace Is There, must be discussed briefly. The latter was released in 2014 to what would eventually become a rabid fan following and, along with some critical acclaim from those inside and outside of the scene, has come to be seen as a stone cold classic of the genre. One of the defining attributes of the album is the way it lays itself bare to its audience with hard-hitting, straightforward instrumentals that soundtrack Holden’s vivid and soul-crushingly honest lyrics. I mention this because there exists a contrast when it comes to that album and Goodness. When a band releases a record like Home, they run the unfortunate risk of being pigeon-holed as a “sad” band, which is another dirty musical word along with the aforementioned “emo”. But with Goodness, there’s a certain level of relief, of tranquility, even of joyousness compared to the frayed edges and emotional turmoil of its predecessor.
While one of the prominent threads on Home was a defined sense of clarity in its emotional unburdening, Goodness resigns itself more into the uncertainties and the vagueness of life, where events are left to expire and renew with or without explanation in accordance with Holden’s Taoist spiritual philosophy (he refers to Goodness as a “Taoist love record” in an interview with Stereogum). But just because the band takes that step back from the white-hot intensity of Home doesn’t mean that there’s any less passion or fire in the album’s songwriting; It just comes back in a different form.
This renewed sense of energy comes through almost immediately after a spoken word introduction on the song “Goodness, Pt. 2” which finds itself alone, at first, with a simple rolling drum beat and Holden’s soaring voice occupying the stage. Eventually the song shifts into a second gear as the guitars come crashing in before concluding with lone, successive shots on the snare that echo into a background of birds chirping and wind blowing. With this song we get a sort of microcosm of the entire album, from the unorthodox sound structures and celebratory tone to the lyrical occupation with people’s arrangement with each other and the world surrounding, concluding with the coda “A bit of shade/The goodness fades/And we begin there.”
And so, like Holden says, we begin there. The next 11 tracks are a flurry of different ideas and concepts all blending together to create something wholly gorgeous and profound. Over and over again arises the feeling that something is being celebrated regardless of the matter, even though a good portion of the lyrical subjects of the album have carried over from Home: break-ups, death, things of all genre coming to an end before our very eyes. But the band instead finds joy in the occasion, in the base human processes working themselves out just as we left them too. Even a song like “Settle The Scar,” originally written and released in 2013, finds new lyrical life in the context of the glorious guitars and major keys.
The great big moments of catharsis that were prevalent on Home are still found in great numbers here, but the band has taken great care to instead make these moments sound like a moment of worship rather than an impassioned confessional. In particular, I think of album and live standout “Sun” and it’s towering (in comparison) near 7-minute length that includes a healthy build-up smack dab in the middle, with Holden’s only lyrical contribution until the climax being a droning recital of the song’s title, as if in trance or in praise to the album’s namesake. There’s no big releases of distortion or anger here or anywhere on the album, but the immensity of this song and the others is created by the performances and the band’s knack for creating boundless soundscapes behind Holden’s dynamic voice.
At times the album can even be rhythmic and groove-oriented, taking it to almost tribal heights on “Soft Animal,” which backtracks its lyrical imagery of a wilderness chase between human and deer with increasingly thumping and shuffling drum beats, as if to highlight the primitiveness of the scene and the tense relationship between the two subjects.
Even with all this energy, Goodness still finds a few moments to wind down and rest with two interludes heavy with natural ambience, but most notably on the penultimate piano ballad “Fear of Good” and the stripped down “Opening Mail For My Grandmother,” which is the longest and most prominent of these respites. The song, as the title suggests, is about Holden’s experience performing some bedside manner with his ailing Grandmother as he reads her her mail and reminisces with her on times gone by. The music reflects this solemn yet serene moment with only a lowkey pulsating guitar backing Holden’s quiet voice as he gives his Grandmother a hopeful reminder: “I’m coming for you.”
And as mentioned, that kind of resigned hopefulness is painted all over the lyrics of this album in different hues and shades but all sticking together in a spiritual one-ness, or at least an attempt at that kind of unity. The spoken word poem that begins the album establishes this theme in a single line that is repeated in a later interlude: “I see the moon and the moon sees me.” Holden finds himself on equal footing with a celestial being in mutual appreciation, and a balance is struck between himself, his companion, and the world around him. However, even though this idea weaves itself through the tapestry of the album’s lyrics, it’s not what the album is about. Goodness is about how this balance is affected by the human interactions we have that can pull us in and out of this balance at will and how it can often be difficult to re-center ourselves in these situations.
The track “Two Deliverances” delves into this idea as Holden contemplates a relationship that seems to be slowly separating due to an incompatibility. Holden eyes the “icons” of undetermined religious affiliation that clutter this person’s room and questions if they could “visit” him and “speak” to him if he wishes, as if this connection could rectify the two’s differences and combine their worlds. The painful realization comes at the end of the track when Holden admits, “I can’t drop my history just to become new.” He knows that the events of his life that have built him can’t just be abandoned in a futile search for spiritual compatibility, but rather than leading to anger, it leads to a compassionate understanding, as he ends the songs with “I couldn’t ask this of you.” In the journey to find personal balance, one of the eventual realities is that you can’t find it with just anyone, but the lesson is to handle with grace and poise, as Holden does here and on the rest of the album.
This dichotomy is represented time and time again in the album, but perhaps never so interestingly as on the allegorical “Soft Animal”. On this song, Holden pursues a young deer through unnamed woods in an attempt to find peace through the being’s “white snow”-like purity. He beckons, “Make me feel alive/Make me believe that all my selves align” and “Make me believe that I don’t have to die”. The deer and the human are naturally opposed entities, as the human typically assumes the role of the predator to the deer’s prey, but Holden attempts to reconcile these differences to have them exist on the same plane as he and the moon had done at the beginning of the album. Like on “Two Deliverances”, however, the two worlds cannot find a way to coexist as the “firing of rifles off” signals the approach of coming hunters and “A mob of voices harmonize/To tell me that you’re not alive”. Despite Holden’s best attempts, unity cannot be achieved and long-ingrained rules of nature come to rear their ugly heads.
Yet still, the album is just as much about coming together as it is pulling apart, and we see this cycle arise prominently on “You In This Light”. The track begins with Holden in the midst of one of these moments of uncertainty as “Feeling erodes/Moving like wash against the limestone”. What he once felt is becoming increasingly worn down and dulled, which weighs on his mind as he’s physically leaving his companion to turn the light switch on. This simple procedure ends up being a physically and spiritually enlightening moment, as the title-referencing lyric says it all: “You in this light feels like a thing I can’t remember”. Awashed in light, this person has become something new in Holden’s eyes, something that leaves him “Feeling disarmed, a little raw, and decentered”. The light and the dark once again come to us as diametrically opposed forces, but ones that cycle: The light will always come around to reveal what the dark has hidden.
The album closes on this same cycle in the form of a single day on “End of Reel”, where we are treated to what could best be called the daily routine of Holden and his companion. The language on this song is vague and somewhat mystic, as Holden describes these rituals of sending “the fire off at both ends” and celebrating “cyclical spins,” which could really be referring to anything: sex, dancing, singing, or just lying in the presence of one another to commemorate your existence. As the festivities wind down, so does the music, and the pulsing rhythms of the guitar slow and slow as sun begins to rise and “dayglow blades” are “scorched by hovering halos”. The comes to a complete stop, then rises again. The instrumental explodes around Holden as he and his partner “stabilize and reset” in “the light of the day”, and even in this moment he takes the time to question, “In the night will you rest your head into my hands?/Will you disrupt this pattern from starting again?” Even in the face of these rituals, the unknowing still remains, and the future still remains unguaranteed. With this sentiment in mind, the mantra of the song strikes through with power and clarity: “I don’t know what I want, what I want’s where I’ve been.” Goodness, at no point, is ever about having certainty or control. Holden never reveals himself as someone who has obtained insight into the non-variables of living or communicating or loving. Within the album’s narrative, everything is always changing and moving and renewing and expiring in ways that might be unpredictable or surprising, but never volatile. This line is the simplification of that idea. Ultimately, there are things that Holden doesn’t know about his inside and outside worlds, but one thing he knows is that he wants the moment that envelops him in this song. Sometimes you’re in the presence of something so good and holy that there’s really no point in being concerned with what’s going to happen in the future. It will all come back around anyway.
Then, the album ends. The music ceases at once, and we’re left with a familiar sound. A single shot on the snare rings out, but this time in complete silence. The sound repeats with ample space in between before never returning without warning. In a Reddit AMA, Holden expands on this moment, commenting that the shared snares between “Goodness Pt. 2” and “End of Reel” signals “[t]he beginning and end of the narrative arc of the record” and that they portray “the idea that goodness is brief and ends abruptly and that time is not linear.” Holden’s comment comes with a level of finality as one of the authors of the piece, but that doesn’t stop this moment and the rest of the album from overflowing with a certain impressionism.
Every aspect of this album is imbued with the personal realities of the band, from the kaleidoscopic lyrics to the notable shift in musical style, but ultimately Goodness speaks to something much more universal that we could all find ourselves in. As a work about human and natural interactions between each other and the Earth surrounding, it’s constantly moving and take different shapes the more you live in its space. Holden’s dominating usage of the pronoun “you” in these lyrics could have made the album feel exclusive, but instead of feeling like a conversation you can’t be a part of, it’s more like a conversation that we’re all apart of that is constantly shifting phases and returning to our lives in complicated yet beautiful ways. The ringing snares that bookend this album could be mark of a cycle renewing, two heartbeats converging as one, the sound of a rifle’s fire and subsequent impact with deer skin, or nothing at all. The important part is that you are a witness to the moment as it passes and returns again.