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If the cover of The Hill and Wood’s brilliant new record, When You Go, looks familiar, that’s because lead singer/songwriter Sam Bush and I share not only a long friendship but an affection for the work of Australian artist Jeremy Geddes. Sam somehow got permission for Geddes’s “Ascent”, part of his series of astronaut-slash-deepseadiver-floating-in-space paintings. No dove in this one, you’ll note. Instead, tentacles of fresh, slightly tangled plant-life are breaking through the voyager’s vacuum-sealed armor as he/she/it rises into the light. That’s no coincidence either.

The way Sam tells it, this record wasn’t supposed to happen. After a couple of well-heeled attempts to crack the indie hype machine (such as it may be), he had given up on his rock n roll dreams. Not on music itself, but on what people mean when they talk about “making it”. The rest of the band had moved on, left town and/or enrolled in grad school. Sam himself got married. Then, out of the blue, a record label from the West Coast got in touch. They wanted to fund more Hill and Wood music, no strings attached. Death, meet resurrection.

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The result of their graciousness is When You Go, a collection of eleven songs that deal in equal measure with resignation, loneliness, and love. It’s an album, in other words, about growing up. Sam described the songs to me as both the darkest he’s written and the most fun to record. And you can actually hear each end of that statement in the grooves (and in Sam’s sublime singing, which has reached a new level of self-assurance). Just be sure to listen closely, as producer Colin Killalea has loaded the arrangements with all sorts of surprising sonic detail. What sounds spare and airy at first peels back with each successive listen, so that the more you play When You Go, the bigger it sounds–almost otherworldly in places. A tough feat for what was by all accounts a fairly analog experience.

“No Surprise” kicks off the proceedings with one of Sam’s prettiest melodies, some playfully echoed-out back-up vocals and some killer pedal steel from Spacebomb heavy-hitter Trey Pollard. Pollard shines throughout the record, lending the tunes less of a mountain feel than an island one. “Alas, Alone” uses hushed double-tracked vocals to reflect on Pascal’s famous diagnosis, “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone”.

The two-part “Kindred” is the probably most vertical track on the record, boasting some Tusk-like percussion as it ponders identity and grace and self-determination via prodigal imagery (“Your father’s son/ it is enough / you can’t outrun / it is enough”). “Unpacking” is a slow-building waltz that features some gorgeous harmonies in the coda from Sam’s longtime collaborator Juliana Daugherty. Then comes the entreating lead-off single “Crocodile”, the most immediately catchy song here. It features more immaculate pedal steel from Pollard, heavenly vocal harmonies from Daugherty, and lyrics that drip with law-grace dynamics. “Seasons” fingerpicks its way through a post-breakup landscape to devastating effect.

And then we come to the second half, where the record shifts gears and over the course of three songs, follows its cover subject into the stratosphere. If you’re looking for reference points, “Jericho” is the song people have been waiting patiently for Fleet Foxes to deliver, “When You Go” does more with finger-snaps than most bands do with an orchestra, and “Magnetar” is reminiscent of when The Flaming Lips still made transporting/transcendent music, this year’s “Song for Zula”. It also makes you wonder why Sam doesn’t work his falsetto more often.

Of course, such signposts don’t really do the suite justice. Sam and co are steering the ship into territory that’s all their own, a place that’s soulful and sad and expansive yet pretty as hell.

If I had to pick a single highwater mark, “Magnetar” and its fractured guitar solo would probably be it. I’ve had it in my personal playlists since I got the demo back in September. When it comes to that glorious recording, in fact, I can’t help but quote the review by Erin O’Hare that appeared in Cville Weekly:

[When You Go is] a record about being in your late 20s and early 30s and coming to terms with some of the stranger facts of existence. Take, for example, “Magnetar.”

“After everywhere I’ve been, everything I’ve been through / I’ve seen two types of people, ones like me and ones like you. / Me, I’m just a moon, just a cold ball that lingers / And you’re a magnetar with lights coming out of your fingers,” Bush starts off on the keyboard-heavy ballad. Here, he’s singing about his wife—he feels drawn to her, a star with a powerful magnetic field. They’re strongly bonded by the union of their marriage, but they’re still solitary figures.

“It’s very human to need something other than yourself,” Bush says, and usually you need another human. But there’s tremendous sadness and fear in realizing that even the person you feel most connected to isn’t the solution to life’s loneliness. In many ways, we’re all the figure on the cover, untethered and floating solo in the dark, tangled in the life bursting forth from our busted seams.

“That’s what we’re all connecting over,” Bush says. “In order to connect with yourself or with others, you need to write about things the way they are. Those ‘things,’ unfortunately, are loneliness, fear and…well, maybe just those two things,” he says with a laugh.

LET A GOOD THING GROW from Charlotte Hornsby on Vimeo.

I wonder if Sam’s being a little bashful with that final comment. Because the record ends on a note that’s more comforting than tentative. There’s a strong sense in the closing two songs that, while growing up may entail coming to terms with the way things are (as opposed to how they should be), doing so is an act of faith as much as resignation. The two may even be indistinguishable.

For example, just when you think the confessional “The Choices That I’ve Made” has come to a disquieting end, horns wrap themselves around the listener in warm and wordless absolution while the drums beat a forward march. Where are they taking us? To the sea, the horizon, the great unknown. To an arrival at that hard-fought shore where “the tide decides” and illusions are washed away along with that which stains us. Where trust in ourselves is relinquished with every crashing wave and, maybe just maybe, new life pushes out from suffocated sleeves and the downward journey into darkness is revealed to have been an upward journey into the light all along.

The Hill & Wood – The Tide Decides from Pando Creative Co. on Vimeo.