album review: ha ha tonka — lessons

ha ha tonka @ the casbah

i’m close to the age that i only do things that i know how to do
i can make coffee and i can make small talk
’cause who wants to try something new?

And so starts “Dead To The World” and Lessons, the astonishing 4th LP from Missouri quartet Ha Ha Tonka.

I have spent a lot of words talking about the ways in which Ha Ha Tonka has been astonishing me since their 2009 album Novel Sounds Of The Nouveau South; Brian Roberts’ startlingly literary and sharply perceptive lyrics, for one, or Brett Anderson’s otherworldly mandolin lines. Their compelling and funny and noisy live show. The complexity of their records, the delicacy and care of the way the songs are put together, music and words married, their ability to harmonize. The way that I have listened to “Close Every Valve To Your Bleeding Heart” more than 500 times, and every time they play it for me live, I still do my embarrassing honking-and-weeping-and-falling-over thing. There are a lot of ways the Tonk can astonish you, and they’re all present on Lessons, every last one of them that makes Ha Ha Tonka one of the best bands working today. This record is astonishing because Ha Ha Tonka is astonishing.

But mostly, Lessons is astonishing for the way it rages, which is something that a Ha Ha Tonka album has never done before.

Buckle rocks. Novel Sounds is complex and sad and furious, but quietly. Decade shines brightly, a record full of dark shadows and golden sounds. But Lessons rages — against life, against death, for love, against even the dying of the light, I suppose, and it’s only in reviewing a band who once cited Dostoyevsky in a song that I can pull out Dylan Thomas, but that is what this album does. It rages, in its words and in its sounds, against the dying of the light. I don’t know how Roberts feels about Dylan Thomas, and I do know that Maurice Sendak, as he’s said in interviews, is all over this album in its creative spaces and the way it urges you to make things, but that raging — that raging is all about not going gently anywhere.

This album goes gently about as far as I could throw the band, collectively. (I am weak. There are four of them.)

Lessons opens with “Dead To The World”, a lush combination of strings and Brett’s mandolin that is another step forward for the band — the orchestration of Lessons is thicker and even more complex than usual — and where the song starts in a plaint, it ends with Roberts nearly howling no i don’t want to be dead to the world around me while the mandolin and the strings swirl in a fury pursued by Lennon Bone’s drumming. It closes quiet, just the mandolin and the resigned weariness of Roberts’ voice on the last chorus. “Colorful Kids” — and these are the only two songs I listened to before the record came out, “Dead To The World” because I’ve seen them do it live several times in the last year, and the latter because it was the first single and I was desperate for a taste — sounds, in some ways, a continuation of the weariness and defeat of the end of “Dead To The World”, caught between the layers of the beginning of each chorus — me as I was, you as you were — and the sad desperation of the end of each chorus, Roberts’ voice on its own: before the color began to bleed out of us.

Rage against your frozen nature, rage against the world changing.

“Staring At The End Of Our Lives” reminds me of the more angry, more determined cousin of Decade’s “No Great Harm” — the latter a song about doing it on your own. But “Staring” says i can always ask my friends / help me help myself / i stand alone, i need someone else / oh ain’t it a beautiful sight, and that’s a grown-up raging against loneliness. It drives along with the churning guitar — one of the few tracks where the mandolin doesn’t set the pace — and the chorused lyrics, one of the only songs in which Roberts’ voice is almost never left alone, even for a moment, and then halfway through, it churns up even further, electric guitar and bass chunking out chords that overwhelm the pained, hopeful Ahhhs in the background. The two short breaks — “Synthetic Love” and “Synthetic Heart” — are the kinds of tracks that I normally wrinkle my nose at as filler on other records, but here they transition Lessons in its space, from the fierce rage of the first three tracks, to the desperately sad raging of “Arabella”, where the lonely acoustics and plea to a long-gone woman are cut with distorted and eerie bass interludes, and the title track.

In the interview I ran yesterday, Roberts notes that they felt “Lessons” better represented the record as a title track than a potentially alliterative title (my guess: it was “American Ambition”, which would have worked, but probably not as well), and it is, in some ways, the heart of this album; it’s certainly the track that made me burst into tears driving to Raleigh yesterday evening. I can’t keep learning the same lessons over again, Roberts chants, and then pleads, and then wails. I keep learning the same lessons over again. Oh, boy, do I know how that feels, and while Lessons certainly diverges from previous releases in terms of sound — the lush and layered orchestration that Roberts noted in response to my question, they won’t be able to reproduce live, though the songwriting on this one is too strong to make that a concern — I think that Lessons follows the same path of growing up with the band that Novel Sounds and Death of a Decade started. They are all records about being human, and falliable, and in pain and in love and in confusion. “Lessons”, the title track, is mournful and hopeful at the same time, because that’s what this record is about: you can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again, but the first step in breaking that cycle is knowing that you are doing that. The chant of that chorus and the rising howl of the guitars on the song are raw and desperate, full of the kind of clawing frustration and pain that makes you rage against the cages you’re trapped in. It’s four minutes of trapped fury, and the whole album turns on that song, a tornado of desperation and desire.

I think, though, that the soul of the album is in the pairing of “Synthetic Love” and “Rewrite Our Lives”, because what do you do when you have learned those lessons? You change it. You revise it. You rewrite it, pardon my obviousness. The quiet piano outro of “American Ambition” to the reverberating, lilting transition of “Synthetic Love” into the lonely bombast of “Rewrite Our Lives” is the space where this album turns, and explodes from something great to something genius. And “Rewrite Our Lives”, the racing drumming and the distorted mandolin / guitar melody that mimics the dynamic open of “Dead To The W0orld”, god. Just, these lyrics:

i’m beginning to believe that i’ve got more past now than future left in front of me
i wish that we could rewrite our lives, i wish that we could rewrite our own lives

i said that i don’t want to quit
i want a heart that’s synthetic
i want you to have one too
then we could try this all again

It’s the stunner and the centerpiece on Lessons, even if the title track is, well, the title track. It’s the fusion of every single thing that the Tonk does beautifully: that mandolin, the gut punch of love and loss in the lyrics, the harmonies, the way it explodes even past its explosive opening. Ha Ha Tonka writes a song that starts big and gets bigger, and it just barrels straight forward, furious and determined and lovely.

“Cold Forgiver” is muted and hopeful, a quiet slide from “Rewrite Our Lives”, its dischordant piano outro a twitching, compelling rage of its own into “Pied Pipers”, a song about escaping everything about where you are, now. About the way the things you do can help yourself escape, and other people escape. A song not about running away, but about moving on: pied pipers to a good time. It’s a spinning, hypnotic, lyrical ode to moving on, and moving up, and the ways that we trick ourselves into doing it. “The Past Has Arms” opens with maybe the most heartbreaking couplet on the record:

a mouthful of blood when i bit my tongue
i caught myself feeling important again

Those two go on to start the end of the record; the part that’s about being caught in the past, and trying to move forward, and not letting yourself. i always come back again, Roberts wails. It is just a marvel, this record, the way it spins in and in on its; Roberts said this was the most personal record that the band has made, and I understand why, and how. Lessons is an album about facing your own demons, and letting other people shoulder your burden — “Staring At The End Of Our Lives” — and the pain of being unable to escape those things — both “The Past Has Arms” and “Terrible Tomorrow”. Put together, this album is so raw and honest that it was, all in all, a little frightening to write about it. It’s painful and it’s gorgeous and it’s ugly and it’s hopeful, this album. Lessons rages, but it isn’t angry. It rages, but it isn’t sad.

God, sometimes in your 30s, or your 20s, or whenever — sometimes you just have to rage. You have to rage against those arms of the past that are still holding onto you, you have to rage about how you can’t make yourself learn anything. Lessons rages, and it is beautiful, and if anyone says less of it, they are wrong.

And album-ender “Prove The World Wrong”? Well, when you’re raging, what else are you trying to do? Prove the world wrong. Prove the world you can change something. All the lessons I’ve learned, all the lessons I’ve learned. It’s as close to the stripped down beauty of their live a cappella “Hangman / Pendergast Machine” as the Tonk gets on record, even though it’s not nearly as pin-drop quiet, just the same sense of utterly stilling beauty, and it’s a little smug, and a little sad. It’s an shuddering end to a fierce record.

i knew it all along
yeah, the funny thing is, i knew that all along

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