The Anniversary

Home, Like Noplace Is There Turns 10

Tiny Engines
Tiny Engines

Emo music is about me, or sometimes it’s about you, but only in the singular. And usually “you” are a woman, or if we’re being honest a girl who is done wrong by me. This is much of what defined the genre from ‘90s to through the 2000s. It’s the Get Up Kids’ “Action & Action,” it’s Taking Back Sunday’s “Cute Without the ‘E’.” When we talk about the emo revival, we’re talking about bands moving away from the scorched-earth acoustics of Dashboard Confessional or the glossy pop-punk of Fall Out Boy — acts who helped catapult emo into an era of commercial success — and toward a dirtier, knottier sound. The emo revival represented something more than just a shift in sound. There’s a shift of perspective, too, from “me” and “you” to “us,” and it was embodied in the music of a four-piece from Worcester, Massachusetts.

The Hotel Year formed in 2009, when all of the members — vocalist/bassist Christian Holden, vocalist/guitarist Zack Shaw, guitarist/vocalist Chris Hoffman, and drummer Sam Frederick — were in high school at the time. The rawness of their now-lost early demos (We Are All Alone and Two Song Demo) sometimes betray their age. But they were promising enough to garner the attention of the Brooklyn-based punk label Mightier Than Sword, likely best known for bringing Blink-182’s early work to vinyl. In 2011, Mightier Than Sword released the Hotel Year’s proper full-length debut, It Never Goes Out, a record bubbling over with rage — against everyone from “the schools that brought us up and had us socialized” to “your asshole neighbors.”

It Never Goes Out is a really good record, but it’s one that, in hindsight, is a trial run for what would follow. Mightier Than Sword Records folded a year later, and it’d take four years before the band would win back the rights to re-release the album on vinyl. As a result of the trouble with the label, the band’s planned sophomore album was delayed, too, as they looked for a new home. Shaw, the youngest member of the band, would leave soon after It Never Goes Out’s release and wouldn’t return to making music until 2015, and confusion over their name led the remaining trio to rechristen themselves the Hotelier. They had been working on a follow-up to It Never Goes Out for a while by then, and Holden in particular was determined to make something more mature than their previous material. They succeeded.

The whole thing that made emo unique, when the genre emerged from the DC hardcore scene in the ‘80s, was a lyrical focus on personal conflict rather than political conflict. By the time the revival came to be, most of the bands involved were finding ways to recast their individual struggles as communal ones; it’s Modern Baseball going from “the future freaks me out” to “the future freaks us out,” it’s The World Is A Beautiful Place telling us that “if you’re afraid to die, then so am I.” But with Home, Like Noplace Is There – which was released 10 years ago this weekend – the Hotelier stepped beyond their peers. In his Pitchfork review, Ian Cohen wrote that “Home derives its gut-wrenching power from Holden’s narrator being someone who’s barely escaped the same tragedies, speaks the language of its victims,” and that’s an accurate read on what gives the record weight a decade later. In these songs Holden casts themselves as “weak in women’s fear, gender-fucked” and ends the record by telling a friend who took their own life that “I felt the noose tighten up on your collarbone and I felt the gun at the small of your back.”

The Hotelier took a broader view of these crises; Holden’s anarchist politics had bled into It Never Goes Out with polemics against bankers and billionaires, but they take a subtler tack on Home. In a 2014 interview with RVA, Holden explained that, in their view, “most of the struggles people face in their lives are political struggles. So much of what makes up people’s lives are governed by the social structure and political structure… It’s completely political when I’m talking about someone who took their life because they come from a working class family where alcoholism is more prevalent.”

So these songs contain no references to “desiring to spit straight into the face of billionaires“; instead, Holden gestures toward the political causes of the daily problems people face. On “Your Deep Rest” they allude to the “constant erasure of a working-class background where despair trickles down” as a source of their friend’s suffering, both rooting depression in poverty and equating depression with poverty; “Dendron” frames their attempt at empathy in terms of a market transaction: “Cut off my arm at the bone in solidarity, because capital teaches that there’s less when you share.”

On “Among The Wildflowers,” one of two songs on Home – along with the following “Life In Drag,” not coincidentally two of the heaviest – to directly tackle gender dysphoria and transphobia, Holden frames the body as a colonial territory, a space for everyone else to project their own feelings of ownership and notions of tradition. It’s less direct, to be sure, than the songs on Transgender Dysphoria Blues (released a month prior), but it was one of the first times I’d heard that perspective expressed in art. “Life In Drag” is more explicit. It’s a song that Holden wrote about their own experiences questioning their identity; it doesn’t seek to educate so much as it frankly relays their thoughts, feelings, and grief in real time: “You taught me how to guard myself, to keep my heart unscathed,” but that’s not enough to keep from “strugg[ing] dealing with the loss of yet another life in drag.”

In a genre defined by its focus on personal feelings and experiences, Home did something genuinely radical in pulling back the curtain and grounding individual struggles not in entitlement or heartbreak but in a political context. There are interpersonal relationships throughout the record — friendships and arguments and breakups and late-night drives and fuckups — but none of them exist independent of one another. This could have a chilling effect, could end up sterilizing the humanity of the LP in favor of the politics of it all; instead, Holden makes them feel interconnected. The Hotelier’s politics of solidarity were inextricable from their views on day-to-day human relationships. There were no other bands in their scene doing that.

Most of the bands they came up alongside were dealing in raw, math-inflected emo in the lineage of Cap’n Jazz or American Football; a lot of it was coming from Philly. The bands on the label Count Your Lucky Stars, mostly hailing from the Midwest, were pulling more from the Sunny Day Real Estate camp. On the weirder end of the spectrum were bands like Foxing or The World Is…, who pulled as much from the bombastic kitchen-sink indie rock of the mid-2000s as they did the emo bands of the ‘90s. The Hotelier didn’t fit into any of those boxes.

None of their peers were opening their records with five-minute electric organ dirges that smash-cut into call-and-response pop-punk singles, and they certainly didn’t sneak screamo songs into the back halves of their albums — and if they did, it’d probably have been a mess. But Home is wide-ranging and well-paced, with nods to everyone from I Hate Myself to Texas Is The Reason to Thursday to the Weakerthans (especially on late-album cut “Housebroken”). There’s a lot going in these 36 minutes, to be sure, but it’s all balanced. “The Scope Of All Of This Rebuilding,” for example, is rugged enough to add some edge to the sweetness of its melodies, and “Your Deep Rest,” the band’s signature song, wraps Holden’s guilty conscience in jaunty alt-rock riffs.

One of the band’s favorite tricks on Home was to build out a song and pivot hard left for its finale. The modestly titled “An Introduction To The Album” is nothing but Holden’s voice, an electric organ, and a single clean guitar for three and a half minutes until a single off-mic “fuck” rallies the whole band into a breathless, pummeling coda. “Among The Wildflowers” pulls off a similar trick: it’s a smoldering ballad for three minutes and it’s an explosive post-hardcore moonshot for its final two; the whole song is upward momentum leading into the straight-up screamo of “Life in Drag.” Closer “Dendron” unravels in three parts, each third featuring its own natural arc; after the proper song ends, an acoustic guitar reprises the vocal melody from “An Introduction.”

I was 15 the first time I heard Home, Like Noplace Is There. I’d never heard anything like it at the time. I still haven’t. At this point in my life, I don’t think I’ll ever connect with a piece of music the way I did with Home. It captured everything I needed to feel, needed to hear, as a teenager watching the world decay around me; at the time, I associated these songs with friends of mine who’d gone through similar experiences, but a decade removed they read more universally to me. I don’t think Home’s really a record that grows with you, but I think it’s a record that you can continue growing into. It’s one that feels grounded in a time and place, and you can’t return there, but you can start to see outside the frames of that picture.

Last year, I saw the Hotelier on their Home 10-year anniversary tour with Foxing. As is custom, they played the whole album through. They sounded phenomenal. Given what they mean to me, there was no way that they wouldn’t sound phenomenal. The songs sounded almost just like they do on Home, except for one word Christian Holden changed in “Discomfort Revisited,” the album’s most underrated cut. Where the bridge of the song on the album goes, “Project the voice that I found for you,” they sang out, “Project the voice that I found with you.” It felt right. The Hotelier were there when I felt alone, but they never saved my life. They invited me to look around and see that I wasn’t alone. In that room, it was something we could all share. And then, when the night ended and the goodness faded, we could begin there.

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