Abel transforms emotions on Happy Belated

Genre-splaining as a way to streamline listeners to a product they might like has become an ineffective way of pitching music. Trying to introduce someone to a musician they haven’t come across before has become a song and dance of, “Well, it sounds like this mixed in with that, but it’s also these other things as well.” It’s silly and somewhat pretentious to hide your direct and disparate influences from your audience, but I also think it has done more harm than good when trying to turn someone on to a band that probably never would’ve crossed their radar. (I think of the scene in the TV series High Fidelity where Simon describes an act they are about to see as, “sort of like Unknown Mortal Orchestra meets Frank Ocean kind of vibe,” as the perfect example of this over-identifying comparisons phenomenon.) Emotion, more so than genre, goes bounds farther when describing the feel of a project to someone else for the first time.

While it makes sense to classify Abel’s latest album Happy Belated as bedroom folk-rock — two labels that also appear on their Bandcamp profile — pinpointing how the album sounds as lo-fi sorrow does the musicians involved (Michael Wells and Luke Neff provided mixing on the LP) more justice as artists than the former descriptor. On its surface, there’s a story of love being told, one that has seemingly reached a conclusion for now with allusions to themes of breaking up. Toxic love is a consistent theme, with scenes such as, “when your lips touch that beer” and “your face when you feel unstoppable.” With lines like, “I wanna see you in my nightmares/I wanna see you in my dreams” — which we hear on the opening track “Beer” — and “I really thought we were something nice/And then you said/I like it when you say you wanna die/It makes me feel alright/For being who I am,” it can be inferred that the duality of a loved one’s different moods can be difficult to handle in a relationship, yet worth it. Despite feelings toward loved ones being spilled through all 10 tracks, there are passion-crushing lines such as, “Took a pill/Now it’s helping,” which is referenced a short bit later as “fake endings.” The complexities of emotions are a present theme as well.

“Most of my lyrics are written in a sort of narrative format, with inspiration from what I see around me in my friend groups, strangers’ lives, and pop culture. I want them to hit a nerve in listeners with how brutally honest they are, sort of how realism in books like The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger strike people as unnerving and dark,” Abel said in a message.

Not just in the lyric writing, but Abel is able to transform intense desires all throughout this spiraling record. “Beer” starts off with Abel delivering lines in a croaky voice that easily puts you in the Elliott Smith state of mind. The swirling second track, “Without a Trace,” is more rigid sounding, but there’s just as much emotion packed in the vocals and chord progressions. The following two tracks also go down a more conventional emo route, with “Eternal Offering’s” screamo breakdown before the final verse and after beautifully broken into two parts with a synthy closing. The way the vocals are layered on “I Don’t Know What I Want” makes some tracks sound almost purely instrumental in nature. (In fact, this is one of two tracks on Bandcamp in which lyrics aren’t provided to the audience.) The final verse of “Happy Place,” with its beating drumline in the background, ties this emotional roller coaster of an album back down from an interlude-fueled climax.

I think it’s important to point out the effectiveness and execution of Abel’s middle songs because it means that they are paying close attention to structure and tracklisting. The Tycho-leaning “Vacant” has movements that make it sound like you’re suddenly immersed in a film score. The guitar sound textures we’re hearing on this record are some of the most moving on the record. These songs continually build upon each other and climax into “Run” and “Happy Place,” which has hints of — dare I say — local legends Van Dale. But again, as alluded to earlier, band comparisons don’t go nearly as far as simply telling someone how a record makes you feel. And as personal as the lyrics seem on Happy Belated and as clear as some of the genre influences appear, its emotional palette sure evokes relatable sentiments through and through.

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