Joy and Better Days
Release Date: April 10th, 2012
Label: Gravitation Records
In 1968, Fairport Convention bassist Ashley Hutchings told producer Joe Boyd about a new talent out of Cambridge. Boyd tracked down the young musician and asked to hear a few songs. After listening to the artist’s reel-to-reel four track demo, Boyd immediately knew that he had found something special. Boyd worked with the artist on three LPs that received little to no acclaim. The artist suffered from depression and passed away due to an antidepressant overdose in 1974. In 1999, twenty-five years after his death, one of his songs finally reached popularity and acclaim – after it was featured in a Volkswagen commercial.
That artist was Nick Drake. I’ve always considered him to be my favorite musician of all time. His story is just one example of how cruel the world of music can be for artists, those who realize their talent, and the few fans they may gather along the long road towards “success.” The contemporary landscape is both better and worse. Yes, artists like Hip Hatchet can more easily find their way to listeners’ ears because of how the Internet facilitates lesser known acts, but the sheer amount of artists gaining small exposure causes even the best talents to become soft echoes for a few moments before being replaced by the next buzz-based act.
When he put on Drake’s reel-to-reel, Boyd knew he was dealing with something that transcended anything he had ever heard before. It just took time, a lot of time, for the rest of the world to hear what Boyd did. Now, I was a fan of Hip Hatchet’s first LP Men Who Share My Name, but after the first listen of his newest offering, Joy and Better Days, I sat with teary eyes and for the first time understood how Boyd might have felt back in 1968.
The first thing that should be mentioned about Joy and Better Days is that Philippe Bronchtein (Hip Hatchet) emerges as a lyrical master. Every line, and I mean every line, stands alone as a little moment of literary virtuosity. I could share just about any one of Bronchtein’s lyrics as an example of what I’m talking about, and with this album, I’m tempted to go through line by line. But to save you a few pages of reading, I’ll focus on what he accomplishes with his words. Bronchtein’s lyrics focus on human beings – they put the minor details of being alive under a microscope. He’s obsessed with hands, mouths, hair, and the other ordinary features of life that we shrug off every day, re-illustrating them for the listener at every turn. His storytelling is filled with humor, sophistication, and the kind of stringing together of thoughts that demands the listener reflect on their own lives. It makes for a powerful record, and a deeply personal listening experience. After hearing Joy and Better Days, it left me thinking that he had said everything I’d ever wanted to say about life, but never had the insight to put so gracefully into words.
Joy and Better Days tackles many topics and themes, including traveling across the country, the great lengths we go to experience and appreciate love, and the human condition. Lyric by lyric, Bronchtein wrestles with these ideas and many others, but ultimately, Joy and Better Days is about displacement. His approach to this theme is raw and honest due to his actual move across country from New Jersey to Portland two summers ago. In this move, Bronchtein found his muse, the lonely road, unknown towns, and the strangers he met along the way. Displacement is a wonderful theme for a folk record because it’s universal. Even if you’ve never moved, everyone can relate to feeling out of place. But unlike most of his peers, Bronchtein never complains about the difficulty of displacement. Instead, he bares his thoughts and delivers answers to his own questions. There is a calmness in his discomfort. Ultimately, Joy and Better Days’ examination of displacement is accompanied by a firsthand account of how the uncomfortable moments of life can be the most rewarding.
This might sound minor, but the track listing on Joy and Better Days is perfection. I hardly mention the ordering of songs in reviews, but this record has such a great flow that after a few spins I started to admire how its bursts of energy lead way to moments of nostalgic introspection and back up into slightly faster melodies. Bronchtein keeps the listeners on their toes, playing with their emotional expectations wherever he can. He takes full ownership of the mood without ever coming across like someone forcing something heavy-handed on you. Joy and Better Days morphs constantly, like the landscapes that roll by when you drive across the United States, but in the end, all of it is part of the same journey.
I can’t speak for all music bloggers, but a lot of us write about music day in and day out for little to no money, all in search of the previously mentioned “Boyd moment” of genuine discovery. When an artist takes you to that place, as Hip Hatchet has done for me with Joy and Better Days, it’s almost indescribably rewarding. I can’t possibly expect that everyone who listens to Joy and Better Days will have the same heightened reaction that I did. Music, like most art, plays heavily into personal taste and past experiences. All I can do is point out that I’ve been writing about bands and artists for five years, and over that time I’ve never heard an up-and-coming talent with the special qualities that Bronchtein possesses. It isn’t just that he’s delivered what I consider to be one of the best folk records of my lifetime - with his words and sounds, he has redefined how I look at life. His music has added to the richness of existence; his words are the unspoken truths that make it so precious.