In 2012, when The Oh Hellos, an ensemble from Texas led by siblings Tyler and Maggie Heath and numbering near a dozen, released their second record, Through the Deep, Dark Valley, they were immediately met by countless comparisons to folk-pop stars like the Lumineers and Mumford and Sons. But while those groups share an affinity for acoustic guitars and melodies that get stuck in your head, The Oh Hellos’ elegance and airtight songwriting struck a chord all its own. Their arrangements knew exactly how to tug at our heartstrings, rising to soaring heights, and then falling into sublime oblivion, with crystal-clear precision. Their mastery of dynamics had more in common with the theatric builds and drops of electronic dance producer Skrillex than the jangle of “Ho Hey.” Stealthily, effortlessly, Through the Deep, Dark Valley channeled the gravity-defying thrills of EDM through the lens of Americana.
But now, three years later, on Dear Wormwood, The Oh Hellos have learned how to pull their punches. Along with their comrades, the Heath siblings have slowed the roller coaster they built on Valley in favor of songs that don’t leap into such visceral extremes, opting instead for immersive soundscapes that envelop you like a fairy tale. “We don’t want to get too comfortable in the kind of music that we write,” Tyler Heath explains, “or the way that we write it.”
Lurking through the narrative of Dear Wormwood is a toxic relationship addressed in both siblings’ lyrics; the type that you can’t quit, even as it threatens to consume you. It’s hard to imagine that The Oh Hellos could convey that agonizing uncertainty with the C-40 explosives of their last album; Dear Wormwood works so well because its arrangements, often ebbing and flowing like tides, mirror the murky push and pull of that tempestuous relationship. Lead single “Bitter Water” capitalizes on the same unease as the Beatles’ “Help!” Its chipper, pastoral arrangement of intertwining guitars and banjo, along with a wordless vocal hook, provide a foil for the bleakest of sentiments: “I know I shouldn’t love you, but I do,” Maggie Heath sings with equal parts resolve and defeat. Later, on “This Will End,” her brother Tyler spins a slow-burning tale of frustration and existential fear before the song inflates like a balloon and rises into a mantra that, for all its grandeur, betrays a sense of bitterness, too.
It’s not until the second half of the album that the band fully delivers on the soundscapes it teased with the gorgeous opening track “Prelude.” Inspired by both C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, itself an account of temptation and resistance, and other “apocalyptic literature,” the second half of Dear Wormwood operates as a suite of songs. Radiating a cinematic glow that unfolds patiently and dreamlike, it is perfectly punctuated by pauses, breaks, and even a full instrumental track, “Danse Macabre,” between the more high-octane passages. “We were taking a Hemingway approach to the writing, and we didn’t want to take any more music or lyrics than we thought the songs actually needed,” Tyler Heath says. “After awhile we got to a point where we’d gone too far in that direction and there wasn’t any space to breathe.” The delicate lull of “Pale White Horse” culminates in a menacing storm of sound, and “Where Is Your Rider” begins with a flurry of handclaps that carries both the twisted banjo line and the Heaths’ intertwined vocals forward before dissolving into an elegant break and a gentle chorus sung en masse. On closing track “Thus Always to Tyrants,” the lush sound of the album’s second half joins forces with a straight-ahead, chugging rhythm that would sound right at home on Through the Deep, Dark Valley; it’s a perplexing move for a song whose very title suggests giving up for good.
Dear Wormwood is the sound of a band refusing to stick to their own formula, even after proving how well they can pull it off. Equal parts emotionally ambiguous and sonically ambitious, these songs manage to show off a complex range of emotions without always having to tell all up front. While many of their peers utilize the instrumentation of American folk music to reach the rafters of stadiums across the world, The Oh Hellos have made a record that doesn’t merely aim to please, but challenges, as well.