He Went To Jared: Hum - Downward Is Heavenward

Here we are again, with another delightful and incredible He Went To Jared. This week, Jared has turned me on to Hum's 1998 album Downward Is Heavenward. This turned out to be their last studio album and a precursor to the band's breakup in 2000. Hum does very greatly hang heavy with the then popular late '90s rock rules. Creative musical design predicated on hooks and riffs. Driving, conservative drums and variously mixed and effected guitars adorn each and every track. But, as Jared will note below... in the "Jared" section, this is also music built upon beautiful lyrics. A lot of these lyrics fall into a more traditional love long category, yes, but they also take a perpetually ethereal quality and maximize them. My first thought upon listening to this album was that is sounded like a brilliant mix of R.E.M. and Foo Fighters (or perhaps more justly, Built To Spill or Guided By Voices). Hum was considered post-hardcore or space-rock, at least according to Wikipedia, and I can hear the reason for those assignments, yet there's something almost too pure to pigeonhole them that way. This band does abide by the washing fields of sound and the chunky guitars, but really, after the first two tracks "Isle of the Cheetah" and "Coming Home," neither of which grabbed me, there is a song called "If You Are In Bloom" that is as melodic and beautiful as it is crunchy.

For me, the album seems only to get better from there. Perhaps because I lust more toward the understated today. Perhaps because I'm in a semi-grumbly mood. For Downward Is Heavenward, I find myself gravitating toward songs like "Afternoon With The Axolotls" that builds slowly and lives by gravely, calm, almost devastatingly somber vocals. An axolotl is a type of aquatic salamander that looks otherworldly, and perhaps that plays perfectly into the space-rock label, but it also lends a sincere complexity to the song's narrative. And then there's a song like "Green To Me," that initially seems plainly '90s rock-grungy, which it is, fairly and truly, but it turns out to paint strange pictures of morning light from satellites and the kind of imminent technological merge between humans and machines, a sort of independence apocalypse. And vocally, and with the song structure, this song could easily be something in the realm of a Ben Gibbard/Death Cab For Cutie track, if the distortion were toned down ever so slightly. The next track, "Dreamboat" probably could  be too (very easily with the same caveat), but what I'm finding really interesting right now, as I ramble on about this, is that Hum did a lot of things that would be popular today, at least structurally. The album shows its age, but also that the basic tenets of pop song writing, or even "indie" song writing are the same no matter how many ways you produce them. Downward Is Heavenward has all the same pieces that the Killers assemble, or you know somebody a little stronger now, and it's largely in the way that the album is decorated that makes it unique.

The only place I could differ with Jared's love of Downward Is Heavenward is in the overall aesthetic, which doesn't appeal to me the same way it might've when it was released. The hooks and riffs on the album ARE pristine. It's designed to ingratiate itself with each pluck of the guitar, but for me, the sincerity of the lyrics betrays such, though vague and light, levels of pandering. Hum does best when they accept the emotional resonance of their words and use the hooks sparingly. "The Inuit Promise" is a perfect example, as it rides too many kinds of clattering attention demanding riffs and turns, which contrasts with the beautiful sadness of lyrics. Overall, though, this album is very enjoyable, very lively and very kind. And it does stand up for a lot of the excellent descriptions my dear friend has provided below. Give it a listen, there's a player. And see if you agree with me or give Jared the right to eat 1/4 of my soul... That's how these blogs work. It's high stakes shit.

JARED: Hum has a somewhat large but very loyal fanbase, and for good reason. They gained some airtime on MTV with their hit "Stars", and then true to the song title faded away. The reasons for this aren't what I'd call fair, however. In the music industry's fickle preference for "move a million units or you're out", Hum didn't get nearly the exposure that they deserved with their follow-up album Downward is Heavenward. Here's a small blurb from Ye Olde Wiki regarding a failed promotion:

"The biggest promotion for the album came with an appearance on Modern Rock Live on January 25, 1998, and the album was released in February. Singles "Green to Me" and "Comin' Home" were promotional-only, and the band only sold 30,000 copies by the end of the year. Due to disappointing sales, and large record label mergers, the band was dropped from their contract in 2000. While touring in Canada, the band's van got into a minor accident, signaling the last straw. They played their final shows in 2000 on December 29 in St. Louis, Missouri and December 31 in Chicago, Illinois."

Once the merge happened, the band just slipped off of the roster. But no one made rock quite like them. With a very strong ear for melody but an equal appreciation for fuzz pedals, Hum made rock songs that could have been stadium but stayed clubs (to my terrible credit, when I was 16 I went to a benefit show at the Ogden that had them headlining. I stayed for the opening two bands but left before Hum came on because I was tired and had a headache and a complaining girlfriend and was 16. I didn't know who Hum even was then, however, and because they were headlining when I was 16 they must have been riding the wave from their initial hit "Stars").

The lyrics are usually science or astronomy-themed, the lyrics are the words in the margins from a lovesick scientist scribbled in the margins of his notebook in-between lengthy formulas and equations. Let's get going!

1. Isle of the Cheetah: Even starting with an "Isle" in the title is fitting for this record: a nice, sunny piece of land. The song starts with pleasantly strummed guitar with some ambient effects from another guitar in the background. Nuances are already within this song - a small, sped-up and reversed guitar segment skitters past like a mosquito would. Then, the distortion comes in, keeping the melody and not afraid to move away from a basic three-chord dirge. Matt Talbot starts singing in a voice that doesn't need to be better than it already is. He's not going to reach operatic heights or bring to mind Jeff Buckley, but his voice is perfect for this music and not hard to believe coming out of a man in a lab coat. The theme is sun and romance, but there's a faint sense of loss in this record. Nothing crushing, but distant. It's not a man sobbing over the grave of his dead wife, but it IS a young fellow sifting through old love letters from an ex and smiling. And then doing math homework.

2. Comin' Home: This is actually my least favorite song on the album, which is to say it's still a great song (it's also the shortest, not even clocking in at 3 minutes). Much the same as the first song, you have undistorted guitar that establishes the melody, and then hark: guitars incoming. The only uncharacteristic thing about this song is that he starts yelling at the end, which he does no where else on the album (more present on their first album). 

3. If You Are To Bloom: This style is all Hum's. A great melody with a juxtaposition of acoustic guitar following by towering guitars that never smother the song, but just seem to FIT. For some reason, the bass does stick out in this song for me - great choices are made. Another song signaling love, not with love letters but with an equals sign, the melodies and hooks are all over this song with the terrific dual guitar work that twists and turns. One of the strongest songs on this album that, to me, represents a form that is most identifiable with Downward is Heavenward.

4. Mr. Lazaras: On what is almost a jaunty start, this is one of my favorite melodies on the album that gets the Hum treatment. Clean strummed guitar for a bit (lots of tracks, from the sound of it - I love myself some guitars and Hum never dislikes piling them on). Specifically, at around 1:25 Hum flexes their muscles a bit. A finger-plucked and strummed acoustic segment that swerves out of the song structure for a bit, and then the lurch of a guitar in the background before turning around and rocking out the main riff again, in a crunchy but pleasant (like Triscuits!) way. This whole song is another great track definitive of why I love Hum and this album. Poppy but really using varied sonic avenues (I just typed that sentence, kill me).

5. Afternoon With The Axolotls: Hum stretches out a bit here and doesn't just march right into the tune. In the background you'll hear the minor touches of ambiance that they like to scatter through their songs. Guitars roll in eventually, but it's slowed down now. You'll hear the presence of the bass eventually (I do admire how they sometimes bring the bass to the front a little bit - as you know, it's not often done). When the songs come in, I feel as though this song is some impossibly dense, slow, pretty fog. It's like being sleepy on an airplane and looking out the window as the sun sets.

6. Green To Me: Good god, there's a reason this was a single. A fantastic riff opens it right up and never stops. This song is tight, right to the point, and terrific all the way through. It's an anthem for sure: "The morning image from the satellites is all blue and green / We've all got wounds to clean, here's a rag, here's some gasoline". Can't say enough about this song - it's definitely one of my favorite songs of all time.

7. Dreamboat: A chugging riff off the bat that shows Hum at what might be their most purposeful "rocking", and it slides back to a more pleasant but still driving melody. I feel that if I use "melody" one more time in this damn review that the English Police will beat my door down, but fuck 'em. They all live in England anyway. Once again, Hum switches up the dynamics besides leaving the distortion pedal stomped the whole song - clean and shimmering guitars keep the verses company before the fuzz comes back in for the choruses. Matt never has to yell to be heard over the guitars, though - it's loud but tasteful, and I'm trying to think of a person who fits that description but frankly, I can't.

8. The Inuit Promise: The lyrics are still keeping pace with the scientific aspect, which is just another unique reason that brings Hum forward from a lot of crunchy, same-y bands from this era. They're also just that slight mournful but happy sense: "So I'll be like you and do what's right, and win a love I don't deserve out on the ice tonight". Who knows.

9. Apollo: Simple and beautiful. It's the ballad of the album and keeps it simple. In a 10-track album packed with anthemic songs, this is a break and fits right in. I remember being at a party when I was in high school at my friend's house and we started talking about relationships (his was struggling a bit at the time). I said "dude, you HAVE to hear this song". We left our friend's house at about 2:00am, weaving a little in the summer night, and got into my car, where I played this and he stared at my dashboard, blinking from time to time but listening intently. When it was over, we were quiet for a bit. "Wow", he said. He bought the album the next day.

10. The Scientists: Hey, last song! More traditional Hum here. Big guitars, big melodies, and what I do like is that it sounds like it's tromping along in a predictable pattern but at 40 seconds the vocals come in and the song shifts to something a lot more pleasing and dynamic. It's not that they add some chimes or a PLEASANT GLOCKENSPIEL, but they just use melody so well. It's a great closer to a great album.

Because people are fanatic about this album, it's #1 on my holy grail list and it's a bitch to find because people just snap it up, every time, and usually for about 100 bucks. Because of a following that has kept alive even in their disbandment, they've headlined two shows (I believe usually New Year's) twice in Chicago recently. I doubt they'll get back together and even then I'm not sure it would carry quite the zeitgeist that rests in this album. There's heartache, love, possibility, vast space, planets, islands, the ocean, tumbling equations and inventions, and overall appreciation for blankets of noise with melody as your bedmate. It's a fantastic album, one of my favorites of all time (top 10, for sure).

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