Perhaps an equally useful conversation topic for 20-somethings as what we studied in college is what we wish we had. As we wander further from the time when our only expectation was to learn, what shape of lens do our minds form? With what tools do we wish we were armed?
Adler Hall—better known as John Henry Hoagland, or to friends (among whom I count myself, for full disclosure), Henry—studied music theory and composition, but he could just as easily have studied English. Perennially thoughtful, Henry approaches music like a text, carefully constructing themes and imagery in the signifying space between music and words. In his first EP, Circumambulate, he orchestrated five quietly beautiful, impressionistic tunes that approached meaning as the album title suggests: walking—or rather, gracefully ambling—around the perimeter.
If the John Henry Hoagland of Circumambulate explored ideas, Adler Hall seems to lean more towards narrative. On “Half,” the story of a night, the song moves in a graspable arc from sparse, bouncing rock bass and percussion to a swell of trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, and euphoric vocal melodies. Lyrics such as, “Struggle to make conversation / Land in all the places we’d rather be than New York,” concretize the story’s space with an approachable specificity.
Despite the personal nature of the story in “Half,” it’s “Tourist Pt. 1” that embraces a more aching intimacy. Ebbing and flowing over the heartbeat-like pulse of bass in a verse-chorus pop structure, but invoking the measured intelligence of composer Adler Hall’s bedroom orchestration, the song builds toward the chorus, “Nothing is holy / Nothing ‘round here, not my skin or your name.” Hitting on the satisfying intersection between poetic imagery—Homeric lotus-eaters and the catacombs of London cathedrals make an appearance—and tangible narrative (“Rest your face against my collar”), Henry exercises a literary mind. With these two gorgeous new songs and more to come in late summer or early fall, though, let’s be glad he opted for music.