By Ghosts, Paper Anthems’ debut album, is a piece of work that carries the listener into a world it manifests through the collaborative work of four elements of creation: instrumentals, vocals, lyrics, and emotion. It’s a gentle ride through a landscape of moods driven by dancing keys with narrative vocals guiding the path. The title itself is a byline; it is a nod to artist Joseph Hitchcock’s personal belief that certain instruments contain spirits who give us songs—several songs on By Ghosts were written on Hitchcock’s very old piano. Such a spiritual nature underlying the instrumental vehicle on this journey of an album sets an atmospheric tone so vivid it’s nearly tangible. As much as the songs are gifts from spirits, By Ghosts itself feels like an invitational gift into art crafted on someone’s blank slate. Speaking to themes within the album, Hitchcock explained that no themes were noted until after its completion, when it felt like a single soul wandering a fabled empty Earth in a quest for beauty that can only be found inside oneself. It’s a delight to be invited into such an intimate experience.
Hitchcock’s music has an inevitable beauty; he was trained in piano since the age of six and carries the blood of a blues singer—traits certainly evident in By Ghosts. Listening to the album the first time through, I had a tough time picking out what exactly about the piano was striking me until I read a comment Hitchcock made. He explained that certain songs were inspired by the working nature of two guitars in math rock, only with his two hands rather than two guitars, which is a lovely description of an extremely effective style. By Ghosts is genre-defiant and has a ton of variety in its songs. It opens with a song that sounds like church, “Guardian Angel”, bold piano with equally bold vocals. The next few songs are a buildup of energy, melancholy themes meshing with playful, singsong melodies. The fourth track, “Hills and Hills and Hills”, was my personal favorite of the album. The piano literally dances and the use of lyrical and melodic repetition deepens the impact. Hitchcock’s voice is steady like a heartbeat throughout—“Hill and hills and hills again/Hills and hills and hills I’m alive/I’m alive please hear me”—as the piano builds in the frenzy of our frantic minds. It really illustrates one of the key themes I noted throughout the whole album: yearning.
A sense of yearning bleeds through so many tracks; “Candle Dances” speaks to forever connection with another, then comes “Cardboard Cove”—“Abstract vision from across the sea/I know you and me will never be”—with a love unrequited. “Scales on Skin” is a heart-wrenching account of a person living as a slave to the land, rich with regret: “If I only tried to find a way/around the whys and hows/like if I really tried/if I really tried.” But like every great journey, the album evolves right along with the traveler. “Coils” feels like a turning point where the quest for meaning brings new insight. The piano is lovely in the beginning, with a simple and singsong melody for the vocals that manage to sound incredibly honest. “Somewhere alone I’ll draw in the sand/I’ll build up a castle just to see it stand/I’ll do it by night under strawberry stars/and if it falls down I’ll still do it all,” and “can you see my colors bursting at the seams/I’m running out of time to solidify my dreams/with every ounce of pressure I’m losing drops of life/it’s momentary silence for a glimmer of a try.” The mood shifts here; there is a newfound sense of resolve and a glimmer of hope found in simply trying. The ending of the song picks up and the use of repetition drive “Coils” home with the feeling of an anthem.
By Ghosts ends on a very strong note. Three tracks from the final, everything turns for “The Very Last Platform.” Hitchcock described this song in the most delicious manner, explaining that all albums have dark turns near the end. This song is so different from everything else on the album; it’s dark and atmospheric. The lyrics are dreamy: “Hold my hand through the fog/in a minute here we’ll board our train/we’re going somewhere far away/where the clouds will dissipate.” If By Ghosts is a quest through deep yearning through introspection, “The Very Last Platform” feels like the missing piece before the final Aha! When we find the closing track, “The Universe Expanding”, it is nothing short of absolutely gratifying. Slightly over four and a half minutes of instrumental bliss with a simple statement at the very end: “I’ve seen everything through your eyes/and I don’t need another life/to figure out what I know now”—if By Ghosts is a fable, this is the moral. Check it out, and when you’re listening, do the album full justice and experience it as the whole sequential piece of art it is. No skipping songs; just dive in and go from start to finish.