ALBUM: Dear Wormwood ARTIST: The Oh Hellos
Album release date: October 16, 2015
Dear Wormwood: We are Never (Ever, Ever) Getting Back Together
Named after the minion demon from C.S. Lewis’ chilling and satirical book The Screwtape Letters, “Dear Wormwood” is Texas-based folk-rock band The Oh Hellos fourth release, to date, and their second full-length album. According to the sibling frontmen of the group, Tyler and Maggie Heath, the album takes its inspiration from Lewis’ fictional work, drawing from both its thematic content as well as its delivery style.
Dear Wormwood is meant to mimic the letter-writing style of The Screwtape Letters: in the book, an experienced elder demon, Screwtape, writes letters to his inexperienced nephew, Wormwood, a demon-in-training. His letters instruct him in the “art of damnation”. In the album, lyrical “letters” are written from a protagonist to an antagonist with whom he (or she) is caught in an abusive relationship. If you look into this a little deeper, the protagonist is a human soul, and the antagonist is a demon (hence, “Dear Wormwood”).
Up to this point, I am unaware of any other album composed of letters to a demon from a soul who is fed up with him and his bullshit, and I admire the guts, wit, and creativity of the Heath siblings.
Self-Confident, Consistent, and Mythical
The Oh Hellos are gifted representatives of the thoughtful, progressive-folk-rock-mandolinified-gang-vocals-and-hand-claps musical movement many of us have come to know and love in the teutonic wake of Mumford & Sons. This isn’t to say that their sound isn’t distinct within the genre: it is, as much as it can be. Tyler and Maggie Heath both have unique voices, and the lyrics they pen have a tendency to go a little deeper than those of many fellow new-wave folk musicians. They know their niche and they’ve settled into it unapologetically; they embrace their bouncy strings and exuberant gang vocals. One new variable on this album is an occasional beetling into bluegrass category, but without becoming insane. So for those who love their particular sound, rejoice: you’ll get lots more of it on their latest installment, and you’ll know without a shadow of a doubt who you’re listening to.
Weather imagery, the state of listening attentiveness, self-awareness/awakening, freedom, bondage, the tenuousness of life, the mingling and competition of passions and desires, the universality of death, temptation and sin, beauty that is true and beauty that is feigned, pilgrimage, invitation, the reality of evil and the lure of sin, and the role of the will in choosing the good all figure into the thematic scaffolding of the album. Elements of what reminded me of Norse, Celtic and Germanic mythology and cosmology are also at play – I could feel the influence of giants like Tolkien behind the sacramental imagination that enlivens this project.
A Powerful Grasp of Language & Allegory
Speaking of mythology and Tolkien, The Heaths evidently have done their reading – they might even be nerds, based on their deft handling of the English language and their penchant for stringing together beautiful phrases that express a sensitivity toward the deeper meaning of things. In the track There Beneath, a song reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ God’s Grandeur (“There lives the dearest freshness deep down things”), we hear the words “palisades” and “cavalcades” in one breath. On a scale of one to homeschooled, how impressive and logophiliacal is that? (I was homeschooled, so I can say that un-selfconsciously.)
The instrumental Danse Macabre is another example of such literary/thematic inspiration. Named after a medieval genre of the same name used to depict the inevitability and universality of death, the song is placed just before the closing track. Its particular atmosphere is prevalent throughout the album, to varying degrees and in varying manifestations: rich or poor, young or old, “the dance of death” is a reality each of us will face at one time or another, regardless of how invincible our fleshly frames may appear. While the artistic expression of this somber reality was often presented in a darkly humorous manner – the idea of tripping the light fantastic with the Grim Reaper is kind of funny, in an uncomfortable way – it was, and remains, indicative of a heightened sense of preparedness and humility in regards to what lies beyond. While such awareness was common amongst our ancestors, the consideration of death and eternity has now been largely rendered obsolete by our techo-magic* inebriated minds, and this is evidently a point the Oh Hellos were mulling over when they composed this particular set of songs.
Calling a Spade a Spade
The idea here isn’t just to impress listeners with the intellectual and musical acumen possessed by the Heaths, byway of literary allusions and catchy rhythms. The main idea is to shed light on a reality that is all too often dismissed as being irrelevant, old-hat, or a manifestation of neurosis: the reality that we are both bodily and spiritual, and the things we choose to do on earth have reverberations in eternity. Most of us suffer from some degree of what Josef Pieper calls “inveterate indifference”: we’re apathetic toward our own souls, and we rarely take a look at who or what we actually worship. And if we’re being really honest, most of us prefer to give the powers of darkness the “benefit of the doubt”: Satan’s just misunderstood, right? A fairy-tale. He can’t mean that much harm…
I enjoyed listening to Dear Wormwood. The lyrical content, the handling of weighty subject matter, and the spiritual maturity of the project are praiseworthy and inspiring. I didn’t find the music itself to be remarkable – likeable, sure, but not remarkable – and their sound isn’t my favorite. There’s too much noise at times, making it difficult to catch what’s being said on some of the songs. This struck me as being unfortunate, since the messages here are incredibly timely and needful, and I’m not sure that most listeners will make the effort to read every line and seek out every literary reference made (maybe they will: perhaps fans of the Oh Hellos are the type to really delve in, and if so, I stand corrected). This isn’t to say that the messages don’t come through loud and clear on a handful of the songs: they do. The title-track Dear Wormwood is undeniably speaking to the devil, calling him out unapologetically as the fraud that he is. “I know who you are now: and I will not have any part in your designs. I know who you are now; and I name you my enemy.”
Regardless of what one’s musical preferences may be, or how steeped in literature and medieval tradition one may or may not be, the renunciation contained in those simple lines should hit home for every person. We’ve all been lied to and manipulated in our most secret minds: but we have a choice when it comes to how we respond to these assaults. The first step to choosing rightly is to identify our enemy and call him out for the liar that he is.
Death, sin, and confusion do not have the final word for those of us who follow a Resurrected God.
*If you’re wondering why I confected the phrase “techno-magic”, and how it really does pertain to our culture’s apathy toward the numinous, please listen to Dr. Peter Kreeft’s podcast “Lost in the Cosmos”. Not only will the podcast deepen your appreciation for the Oh Hellos, it will also deepen your existential awareness – by both inspiring you and horrifying you, much like The Screwtape Letters. Which brings me to say, if you haven’t read the Screwtape Letters: do.