Luke Hawley – The Northwoods Hymnal – Haunting intellectual acoustic rock

Luke Hawley has a truly haunting voice that inspires a variety of emotions, most often a comfortable introspection. His new album The Northwoods Hymnal makes an incredible contribution to American music; it teaches us that all music is spiritual and ought to reflect that reality with sincerity through both lyrics and delivery. It’s a treat, but it’s not for the faint of heart or for someone seeking a pop album.

“I spend my dies picking up the dead, most of them dying in their beds.” It’s a morbid first track, “Your Bones Get Old” that ushers listeners into a different kind of experience. Reflecting on ghosts, death, and the end of life, it’s obvious that Hawley is wrestling with some of his own existential questions. He points listeners to consider how to live by thinking about the end of life.

“The Favorite Season” is an intriguing love song about a deep desire to be with someone. “Ain’t it a lie that when good things do die they never do live again… and I’m think if she loved me I would tell her about forever and how some things simply come and go.” There’s a lot going on with this piece, but it seems to have shades of eastern religion sprinkled through a sincere reflection on love. In other words people ought to live their best in seeking to love one another because life, unfortunately, is fleeting. But yet, the ending explains, “the chance to choose faith over doubt.” It seems a contentious and conflicted song, intentionally so.

The third track, “My Father’s Favorite Hymn” is almost certainly going to appear on my top songs of the year list. It’s one of my favorites I’ve heard in a long time. It partially quotes the classic “It is well with my soul.” But aside from that, Hawley has accomplished an amazing artistic feat in incorporating that classic hymn with his own take on his father. It’s about his father, about spirituality, and ultimately about accepting death. The songwriting itself is deceptively complicated; utilizing minor turns and phenomenal chord changes, Hawley captures an unsettling yet comfortable emotion. In short, Hawley communicates his love for his father in an undeniable way through a fascinating song.

“Savages” is my favorite melody on the album. With a vocal line a bit like Josh Ritter here, the writing is about a difficult fight. “We are bound to fight it toe to toe, round and round.” I suppose it’s a song about the struggles of life, or maybe relationships. But what I love about the juxtaposition of the song and the lyrics, is that it’s about brutal fighting but without the kind of hardcore big guitars and drums that come to define a rallying cry. Rather, it’s a lament. Aren’t we savages, killing each other? It’s an important song that some of the bellicose in society might want to consider.

“Murder in the Heart, Murder in the Hand” is a dark and convicting song. Using a dark sonic structure with minor chord changes and a healthy introspection, the song recalls a difficult relationship. It’s about, frankly, wishing someone dead in a variety of ways. “Now I’m asking God is it a sin or not to pray for all of these? If it is, then murder in the heart is the same as in the hand, then I’ll start making plans right now.” The electric guitar break provides an ominous context to an already dark song. It takes Jesus’s parable about the spirit of sin in one’s heart and carries it to its (logical?) extreme conclusion. If its already a sin, why not go through with it? Yikes.

The penultimate track “What Holds Us Together” is a silly toe-tapper about bodies and every day events that make us human. It’s the kind of songwriting that reminds me of guys like Woody Guthrie and Townes Van Zandt. There just aren’t many people making this kind of music today. He also makes a reference to seeing “past the planks in our eyes.” There’s an obvious gospel influence in Hawley’s music throughout the album. It’s not terribly surprising since he called it a “hymnal.” That said, he’s turning a lot of traditional Christian orthodoxy to a new perspective. “Can we heal when it hurts and forgive when its worse?” In a lot of ways Hawley points his listeners to work together to get past the awfulness of humanity.

The final song “Shoot the Lights Out” is a fitting end to a lyrically complicated album. It’s one part rallying cry, another intellectual reflection, both feeding into a call to action of friends among friends. It’s time to chip in for something bigger, although Hawley doesn’t seem to have that figured out at this time. The song itself is pretty much alternative rock, with full rock band and a “whoa oh oh” refrain. It’s the uncertainty that most defines the track. It is the perfect ending to Hawley’s inquisitive and thought-provoking album.

As I mentioned earlier, “My Father’s Favorite Hymn” is not only the best song on the album, it’s one of the best of the year. The rest of the album is still important. Unfortunately it won’t get much airplay even from the big “indie” market, but it’s the kind of bandcamp gem that keeps me doing what I do. Please share the album with anyone that likes to think about tough questions over high quality acoustic guitar harmonies. It’s a truly artistic work, demanding the attention of other serious musicians and fans with a message relevant to our 21st century intellectual world.

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