The album artwork inspired by 17th century Vanitas paintings, still life portraits that attempt to portray the ephemeral nature of life by placing representations of worldly vanity amongst representations of death, variously arranged for piano, pedal steel, Baldwin Funmachine, tubular bells and Wurlitzer as well as the usual guitars, bass and drums, Hymns For A Hollow Earth, the second album by Nashville-based Alexander is masterclass of Americana exploring themes of discontentment, confusion, despair, but ultimately hope.
His father is a church music leader, you can hear those roots in the stunning, cinematic opener, ‘The Earth Is Hollow’ with its piano, bells and simple acoustic guitar and a lyric of existential despair about “a deep abiding emptiness” where “everything looks fine/if you don’t look too close”, and faith giving way to nihilism as we grow older (“I believe that some things matter or at least I did when I was young/I watched that idealism shatter gradually as I grew up/There’s nothing left to do worth doing anymore nothing left to say/there’s nothing more to find”). And yet, referencing Ecclesiastes, we still cling to the belief that “for everything there is a season/for every shadow there’s a light” and “if ever you find truth/be wise enough to know/if ever you find love .don’t ever let it go/cause they are the only things that can drive away the sorrow”.
Featuring drum loop and borrowing the good neighbours idea, ‘Fences’ stems from his parents’ divorce (“I’ve seen almost thirty years go up in smoke”) and hearing two opposing stories on what led them to that decision, the song addressing how little niggles eventually grow into insurmountable differences (“every mountain started small and every stone you throw is helping build a wall”).
Played on twin guitars, one arpeggiated, the poppy 60s country-folk ‘Born With Broken Hearts’ seeks to understand why we are the way we are and of how sometimes the glitter is just an illusion (“There was a girl that I thought I loved/at least I figured it was close enough…It wasn’t long before the spell wore off/she turned around and I was gone”), taking a mirror to himself his own actions (“cause I know I could pave the road to hell singlehandedly by myself/cause everytime I swear that I meant well/just ain’t quite good enough”)
Ecclesiastes again provides a source reference for the early Paul Simon-esque ‘Unmarked Graves’ which, featuring driving drum loop, handclaps, doubled vocal effects and a classical guitar part, was written in a slew of despond at the end of his twenties and borrows from the chapter on Solomon struggling with finding meaning in a transient life (“I feel like my whole life I’ve been chasing the wind/tell me what’s the point in trying cause I’m no closer than I ever was before and I just don’t care anymore/Cause we all lie in unmarked graves/time will wash our names away”).
That notion of time always running out (“I know there will come a day when I’ll return to where I came”) and of trying to make the most of what there is (“There’s just too many books to read/songs to write and things to see/I’d like to get around to all that stuff”) is at the heart of ‘Ever Be Enough’ which, when it comes down the essentials, is basically just a love song (“I had my share of lonely years but I would not trade a single tear if it would mean I’d have to give you up/Lord willin’ we’ve got plenty time but even if we never died/I don’t think it’ll ever be enough”).
If that’s about sustaining a relationship, as the title suggests, the guitar jangling alt country rocking ‘Push You Away’, on which his wife sings backing vocals, contemplates the opposite (“whatever force drew you to me is gonna get reversed eventually”) as he confront his pessimistic fears about himself (“I’m positively negative/a self-fullfilled catastrophist”) and trying to identify them and stop them before they get out of control. And carrying on down the same train of thought, there’s more what’s the point nihilism lined up on the train rhythm rolling folksy ‘Nothing Makes Me Happy Anymore’, another end of his twenties wallow in misery, but veined with a knowing self-deprecating humour (“I guess it ain’t surprising what becomes of those like me/former gifted children with no prospects or degrees”).
And if you haven’t got the point by now, he follows it with the slow march, Wurlitzer-anchored ‘It’s Hard To Be Happy”, examining his tendency to focus too much on the small negative things (“I’ve got an eye for the flaw in things the minor scratch or the missing piece/it don’t matter how small they might seem/nothing gets by me”) and miss out on the bigger picture, but still veined with wry knowing self-awareness (“It’s no surprise I’m a nervous wreck discontented and all the rest”).
It comes to a close returning to thoughts of mortality, first on the soft shuffling, piano-tinkled hymnal-like ‘It Won’t Be Long’, Alexander multi-tracking different vocals parts while Ellie Turner adds ethereal high harmony, and finally the simple piano graced, fingerpicked, hushed ‘One Day I’m Gonna Let Go’ ending on a note that, while life may be short, its full of disappointments and always ends the same way with our accomplishments fading way, the point is that you have to make it work for me and not the other way around, as he resolves to accept the things you cannot change and find the ups among the downs (“I swear that I’ll be proud of the person I’ve become/though it’s really not exactly”) and that while it might not turns out as you dreamed, ultimately, maybe that’s okay.
Some might find this all a case of somewhat self-indulgent introspective moping, but those with ears to listen will hear a rather tenderly bittersweet, warmly sung folksy meditation of the nature of life and accepting ourselves and other with all the flaws that make us human.
Artist’s website: www.iamtayloralexander.com
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