by Emily Lehman
Dear Wormwood, released on October 15, is the third album in the career of the band The Oh Hellos. The brother-and-sister duo (Tyler and Maggie Heath) skates the thin line between darkness and light in the carefully-crafted album, incorporating playful vocals, ethereal sweeps of synthetic sound, and the down-to-earth twang of mandolin and electric guitar into what, according to Tyler, is a work “about a very unhealthy or abusive relationship” (Music Times) that wrestles fearlessly with the entanglement of destructive love.
Called “a concept album based around The Screwtape Letters,” Dear Wormwood borrows its title from C.S. Lewis’ classic, the imagined correspondence of two devils. But the title song introduces another dimension, taking the form of a letter written by temptee to tempter. The eerily echoing refrain of the title song, half-yelled, half-sung in what sounds like a tremendous open space, is “I know who you are now . . . I know who you are . . . I know who you are now.” It’s the cry of the man to the demon but at the same time the cry of the man to himself, a moment of self-knowledge in which he is able to respond to the demon as something alien: “I know who I am now . . . / I know who you are now / I named you my enemy.” The song, though dark in its lyrics, is almost unnervingly carefree in its bouncing, folksy rhythm; when earnestness breaks through in the refrain, it is almost a cry of pain, the haunting assertion of self-knowledge.
The man’s rejection of the demon in “Dear Wormwood” is developed throughout the album; “I know I shouldn’t love you, but I do,” the refrain of “Bitter Water,” the album’s first vocal track, makes clear how difficult it is to resist love for the indwelling demon. The song’s folk-sounding melody recalls the unbridled joy and haunting melancholy of Irish drinking songs and Appalachian folk tunes and, like those tunes, turns abruptly to darkness in lines like “I am not a fool entire / No, I know what is coming / You’ll bury me beneath the trees I climbed / When I was a child.” “All the days of our delights are poison in my veins,” says the tempted man, recognizing the poison of mistaken and disordered love for what it is and resolving to expel the demon that has taken up interior residence.
In “This Will End,” the album gives words to the hope that lies latent in its sound, providing a verbal lens for the rambunctious acoustic and folk elements that hover over a roiling synthetic darkness.
No, I am not afraid to die
It’s every breath that comes before
Heartache I’ve heard is part of life
And I have broken more and more
But I can hope how this will end
With every line a comedy . . .
The character grasps for hope, but the song doesn’t stop there: “If . . . suffering / Is all there is to gain in life / Then what is all this waiting for? / Cause I can see how this will end / In all its bitter tragedy.” The character walks the line between comedy and tragedy in an attempt to free himself from the evil that he loves but hates to love. The scene grows darker in “Pale White Horse,” where the narrator steers dangerously near despair, almost giving in to temptation, in a song whose lyrics include “It was a pale white horse / With a crooked smile / And I knew it was my time” and ends with loud rhythmic beating, recalling the sound of a train, louder and louder until abruptly cut off as if the train has crashed.
But the album’s final song expresses hope in life after death:
Let me die, let me drown, lay my bones in the ground
I will still come around when the time for sleep is through . . .
To and fro, I will not follow
Where you go, I will not also
I will look for you as the sun rises higher
When the dry bones dance with the timbrel and lyre
. . . Where I go, will you still follow?
Will you leave your shaded hollow?
Will you greet the daylight looming
Learn to love without consuming?
The fear of death that has loomed over the album is finally conquered with hope in the resurrection, when “the dry bones dance.” The Scriptural allusions become even more obvious, and the imagery from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is hard to miss. The narrator is free from his enslavement to Wormwood: “To and fro, I will not follow / Where you go, I will not also.” He has learned self-knowledge and, toward the end of this last song of the album, seems to have found a new leader, one who will lead him through the valley, out of his cave of ignorance, into the light.
The expert use of Dear Wormwood’s musical elements works hand in hand with the sensitivity and depth of its poetic lyrics; the Oh Hellos have succeeded in telling a story that steers through life, love, perversion and death without falling into sentimentality or despair. Dear Wormwood represents the completion of a journey for the up-and-coming band. Let us hope that it is also the beginning of a new story, as it is for the album’s protagonist and for the careful listener.
Emily Lehman is a junior studying English.
Image courtesy Ben Strickland.