Album: Dear Wormwood
Artist: The Oh Hellos
Skip To: The beginning and listen to this whole album in order and bask in the incredibleness. But if you must, skip to Exeunt.
The moment has come to share my favorite album of all time. This is going to be long, so if you get bored, just listen to the music. It’s perfectly capable of speaking for itself.
For those of you who listened to Through the Deep Dark Valley, The Oh Hellos have noted this album as a “part two” to that album. While that album tells stories from a protagonist’s past, Dear Wormwood tells the story of that same character finally breaking free of the past. The title, a nod to C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, speaks to the antagonist of the narrative. Each song is a letter to the person or thing causing the protagonist harm.
The album begins with “Prelude,” an instrumental piece that builds, only to drop suddenly into soft, echoing “oo”s. Immediately following is “Bitter Water,” a joyous, hard folk song at first listen. It’s filled with banjo and choral vocals, like much of the album. But The Oh Hellos contrast the joyful music with darker lyrics, indicating that the protagonist cannot break free of an unhealthy relationship. The song fades seamlessly into the ambient, reflective “There Beneath.” After another quiet, instrumental piece, “In the Blue Hours of Morning,” the album picks up the pace with “Exeunt.” This song is so filled with resolve, both lyrically and musically. It doesn’t have a set chorus; instead, each verse progressively builds anticipation to the cacophonous, exciting finale. This is the point in the narrative at which the protagonist seems to break free of his or her bonds (and the point in The Oh Hellos’ concert at which I go crazy).
The story takes a darker turn with “Caesar.” It has an eerie, “battle” feel as soldiers look towards a king to lead them through their trials. Lyrics drop out halfway through and the song crescendos through choral “oo”s and adds layer after layer of instrumental riffs.The song stands for The Oh Hellos’ incredible ability to communicate emotion through not only lyrics, but the music itself. The quiet, largely acoustic “This Will End,” like “Bitter Water,” utilizes happier music to contrast darker lyrics as the protagonist seems to relapse, knowing that this unhealthy relationship will inevitably end poorly. The protagonist seems to dive even further back into the pain of the relationship in “Pale White Horse,” the most chilling song on the album. Using imagery from the book of Revelation in the Bible, the song depicts a foe that the protagonist knows they cannot defeat. Echoing “oo”s throughout the instrumentation give the song a haunting feel. As they grow louder towards the end, they drop off suddenly to give way to “Where is Your Rider.” Choral vocally and highly percussive, the song serves as a second act to the foreboding tale of “Pale White Horse” as the protagonist finds their foe is not as formidable as they once believed.
“Soldier Poet King” returns to the hope and resolve of “Exeunt,” indicating that, while the protagonist is not yet free, soon, a savior will defeat their antagonist once and for all. Thick with viola, banjo, and choral vocals, the song feels like an old, Irish folk song reinvented. In “Dear Wormwood,” the narrative seems to close as the protagonist reflects on how their demons have shaped them, and in the epic finale, the protagonist resolves to not allow the person or thing to hold them any longer. The song is a mesh of opposites, simultaneously eerie and glad, angry and hopeful. Naturally, the song feels like the end. However, artful as they are, The Oh Hellos show us this is not the end of the story completely. After the all instrumental “Danse Macabre,” a historic French term meaning “Dance of Death,” the album concludes with the unabashed joy of “Thus Always to Tyrants.” The hard folk song puts out the message that the protagonist has fully broken free of this relationship but ends with a question to the antagonist, asking if they too will seek forgiveness for the pain they have caused, if even the exploiter can one day find redemption.