Home, Like NoPlace Is There
by Chad Jewett
“Open the curtains, singing birds.” The instinct is to call it an establishing shot, and in fact, Home, Like NoPlace Is There, the sophomore LP from Worcester’s The Hotelier, doesn’t ever stray too far from that cover image, a pleasant enough two-story house, the album’s title scrawled across its vinyl siding. It’s an image of American comfort, ever-so-slightly askew. If you grew up in the burbs you’ve seen this house everyday, unchanging in the million different contexts of American youth, so that while you’ve maybe imagined that black-paint bit of Wizard of Oz anagram (is it a good thing that the home in question is like “NoPlace is there”? is that freedom, or aimlessness?), every day becomes a variation on a theme. Home, Like NoPlace Is There captures the varying ways we feel about the universe beneath our bedroom windows, beginning with “An Introduction To The Album” and its wake-up poetry, set to delicate piano and guitar trickle; those idyllic birds: they tell us to “tear the buildings down,” and any curiosity over the album’s brief nine songs is clarified by the sheer economy of that opening image – call it anarchic suburbiana. Just notice how overgrown the lawn is on that cover image. You get the feeling that the house might be empty; you wonder what “NoPlace” might mean to Hotelier. Recall that Kansas is only interesting to Dorothy after she sees all its potential for madness.
“The Scope Of All Of This Rebuilding” is full-throated and forward-oriented, never content to stand still over its two-and-a-half minutes. You find yourself surprised when choruses circle back around, since it always just feels like the song is arcing its way up. It’s compact, melody-first emo, making a virtue of being fleet-footed, even if every odd angle is filled with words upon words. You get the image of that house again and remember how each closet is stuffed to the brim with Christmas lights, spare blankets, childhood toys. Emo is rivaled only by the American operas of The Beach Boys in its singular focus on cul de sacs, on towns, on semi-privileged spaces dotted with “Terraces” and “Drives” and “Circles.” The Hotelier clearly sense just how much this dregs up for its audience, and “The Scope Of All Of This Rebuilding” offers a fascinating consideration of the ways in which the band’s generation may in fact be cut off from the very spaces that seemingly define all of this art. “You cut our ropes, left the umbilical, and now I carry around this weight of broken hope. I can’t retrace, and I lost my hold and blame myself because that is all I’ve ever known.” The album begins with the guilty ambivalence of exurban comfort, but here we get something much more complicated – like Dorothy, or perhaps like Thomas Wolfe, its an open question whether we can really ever go home again. The band is never quite overt about the socio-political underpinnings of all this green lawn angst (with a few notable exceptions), but “broken hope” scans something like the eroding American dream, the swift realization that millenials might not even get their shot at those vinyl-sided two-story palaces. It’s almost just desserts for our myopia (“all [we’ve] ever known”) that “The Scope Of All Of This Rebuilding” touches upon the devastation that the suburbs were designed to fend off. “An Introduction…” asks us to wake up. This song is a wake up call.
“In Framing” is steeped in Weakerthans-esque clarity, an interlude of galloping pop punk that somehow evokes folk sweetness in the way that Dude Ranch did if you squinted. It features both bands’ penchant for cramming choruses with words, stray language that becomes safer in crowds. The narrative slips by; you’re left with mood, even for all of that explicit wordiness, and maybe a desperate night-time look at these same old streets, perhaps glimpsed on the way out, the sound of anticipated homesickness or impossible-to-achieve distance. “Your Deep Rest” finds its drama in a minor key swing, beginning in another bedroom, re-set for heartbreak and mixed feelings. “Called in sick from your funeral” sounds like an effort at sloughed responsibilities, until the song just goes on describing the “shell” of someone passed, and you realize that it might be that departed someone who is “missing,” an economic rendering of the exact kind of resistance to change and acceptance that defines where the suburbs came from in the first place. Your old friends are just supposed to be there, the houses keep their pastel hues, your teachers do their yearly best with the same cracking texts. These are square-mile shrines to solid ground, and that might be exactly what all these songs are reacting to: the promise and the curse of that house being there as our narrator returns for this funeral, a witty take on Saves the Day’s similar rumination on death and the hard lesson of impermanence. But where “At Your Funeral” sounded a lot like mixed-emotion spite, “Your Deep Rest” lands on terrified responsibility; it feels deadly real, like “At Your Funeral” at an actual funeral, where things begin to fall apart. The song clarifies, “I called in sick for your funeral,” and all of that fear is confirmed – it’s a fear of change that never really goes away. You wonder again how much that house on that cover is responsible.
Home, Like NoPlace Is There divides its time between tempest and temperance, the lovely major key lilt of “Among The Wildflowers” and its clever lyricism (“You were born on a leap year, fill in the cracks”) offset by the pop-hardcore of “Life In Drag,” a breathtaking exploration of gender, self-knowledge, and the identity pressures of these closed suburban spaces. The Hotelier sets about finding its aural center in a sort of cross-section of 90s earnestness, be it Lifetime hardcore, Promise Ring jangle, or even the late-night-FM reverie of Semisonic. The point is that it feels outsized and drama-soaked. These are songs with triple and quadruple meanings, with at least as many touchstones from your CD collection. “Housebroken” is a smart play on the ways we’re conditioned and the damage that ensues, and the song is unafraid to follow up on those implications, a song about a neglected dog that gets to something deeper about the rigidity and stricture of suburban life when “We must keep our bitches in line” refers not only to that family pet, but also to a taken-for-granted wife. The dog in question tries to talk herself into contentment: “keeps me having a purpose, gives me bed, keeps me feed, and I’m just slightly nervous of what I might do, if I were let loose.” It’s of course easy to substitute for x here, and it’s not only the broken wife, but the widening township of NoPlace (let’s call it) that maintains this uneasy relationship. What if there really is no place like home? What if this isn’t Kansas, but rather Oz? There may be a missed opportunity or two here for further interrogating what it means for those of us raised spoiled and lucky in these bastions of white flight to so deeply fear leaving all of that middle-class comfort, but you also come to realize that few have done that fear justice the way The Hotelier does here. Springsteen wanted like hell to get out, but his protagonists were so much more marginal, so much closer to the way the other half lives. Assume that this band trusts us to realize just how ugly it is to assume the world ends at the town line. The dog, the kid, the neglected wife, resolve to keep their options open, for fear of becoming “house…”. The word is broken, but to say it would make it too easy on us, especially for an album that desires nothing more than to hold us accountable for filling in the blanks, the way it does that slatted space on a house’s vinyl facade. There might even be a clever pun in the album’s front image being suburban discontent, scrawled on vinyl, when that’s exactly how I’d describe the content.
The record closes gently, the crisp-evening emo of “Discomfort Revisited” (another bit of tongue-in-cheek brilliance) fading like day into “Dendron,” a forward-strummed epilogue of abandoned responsibilities. The album departs with questions like “Do you recall the imagery from when I drove you away?” (what a beautiful question!), knowing that we’ll answer yes and supply more than our share of those pictures. The Hotelier is simply well aware that it’ll all come from behind “rose prescription lenses,” a final clever play on the affected vision of cul-de-sac pleasance. The song cycles through grief, and anger, and even glimpses a few bitter lessons of Capital (where else to learn them than in those spaces most visibly constructed for the free market’s continued health?). A death is mentioned, and you wonder if it’s the same passing as earlier. The Hotelier leaves you with that challenge: what is more terrifying, the idea that these growing pains, like the black paint that marks that two-story home, won’t ever go away, or the idea that they’re all fleeting, and so swiftly replaced? Will that warning-ode to “NoPlace” be there to remind you each time you drive down your old street, trying to get it back, or will the house be painted your next time through? Maybe The Hotelier was being kind in sparing this sort of honesty during the Holidays, instead waiting for the slushy doldrums of February, when they have the best chance of saying what we’re all thinking. Can we ever really be sure which we’d prefer – that this small-town space never changes, or that it doesn’t stop for us or anyone? In these suburban villages, bastions of unaccountability, Home, Like NoPlace Is There seeks to at least keep us responsible for that.