Overall Score: 7/10 Songwriting: 8/10 Dynamism: 7/10 Immediacy: 8/10 Pros: Beautifully performed, intricate, introspective music | Deeply personal Cons: Doesn't exactly push any musical or expressive boundaries
Great music is often, though not exclusively, born from pain. Look across your record collection, Spotify library or whatever medium suits you and you will often find torment at the heart of great artistry. The critically acclaimed, world-renowned yet understated singer-songwriter, Alain Johannes, has known his fair share of anguish in recent years. Having worked with a multitude of cool and beloved artists the world over, from Queens of the Stone Age to Arctic Monkeys, he and his muse – his late wife, Natasha – found the arguable apex of their combined powers demonstrated through their work on Chris Cornell’s 1999 debut solo album, Euphoria. Natasha passed away on July 2nd 2008. She fell victim to cancer. Chris Cornell took his own life on May 18th 2017. In November of 2019, Johannes fell ill. Pneumonia, acute bronchitis, and a high fever combined; fluid filled Johannes’ lungs. While breathing treatments and bedrest eventually nursed Johannes back to health, it was in this time that the loss of his dearest Natasha and his friend Chris weighed most heavily on him. Isolated by his condition, he ruminated on the losses he had endured. This inspired his third solo record, Hum.
Based on this information, you would expect Hum to be a profoundly depressing and morbid affair. Opener, Mermaids’ Scream, seemingly plays into this moribund sensibility. It feels every bit the epitaph of a career that it could. The reverberating, resonant chords of a guitar and Johannes’ tender, cracking voice have a funerial dirge to them, and speak to a man defeated. However, from here on out the record becomes overwhelmingly comforting. The title track is a gentle foray into sweet melodies and intricate guitars, tenderly guiding you on a journey through acceptance rather than grief. This feeling of triumph over adversity continues into Hallowed Bones – ‘Maybe not all is lost, as it seems’- and summarises the heart of the record; the deepest thoughts of a man confronted by tragedy not willing to relinquish his emotional integrity to a lifetime of mourning.
The Santiago-born Johannes takes folk influences and a South American timbre to heart in the creation of this record, perhaps his most personal to date. It may seem blindingly obvious that a Chilean musician would utilise the sounds of his homeland, but it cannot be overstated how honest it all feels and how inherent to his musical personality his birthplace is. In the same way the sounds of Birmingham’s steelworks influenced Sabbath and the bleak landscape of 1970s Macclesfield birthed Joy Division, it could only be Santiago that could bring us an artist as multifaceted yet still intrinsically tied to his roots as Johannes. It can be heard in the desert feel of Queens’ Lullabies to Paralyse on which Johannes performed, but here it feels free of any pretence or necessity to find a sound. There’s nothing to aim for performatively here, except that which lies deep within himself. This is his music unadulterated, written and performed as openly as is humanly possible.
The light distortion interwoven into If Morning Comes creates an apparent centrepiece for the album. It is the most clearly dynamic moment of the record and breaks up the potential tedium of an acoustic guitar acting as a lead instrument throughout. However, it is in the acoustic-led songs that we find the most intricacy of Johannes’ abilities. While If Morning Comes’ fuzzed edges allow for the song to have more instantaneous impact, a track like single, Free, uses Johannes’ voice as a form of percussion maintaining a steady humming rhythm beneath the spidery, plucked strings. It stays with you long after the mere minutes are over. The use of humming across the album justifies its title, as does the rolling delivery of its central figure’s voice. The record is close to hummed throughout in Johannes’ soft croon, and the atmosphere he creates: Humming to one’s self is a means to create personal melodies that can soothe even the deepest of wounds, and this is the medium of songcraft that Johannes appears to have aimed for here. Even the electronic buzz of Nine feels like a gentle human hum rather than a mechanical intrusion.
On Hum, Johannes has created something deeply introspective, resilient, and personal. It feels a privilege to hear these thoughts. They feel as though they should be private musings rather than open to the world. As the Eastern tinged Finis rounds out proceedings, you will be left at the end of a journey of inhuman strength; the strength to endure grief, to endure pain so cataclysmic it could break people of lesser constitution. This is an album that will only reveal itself if you have experienced a great loss in life, but one that you can enjoy on a surface level if you have not. On the surface it is a great folk record that uses a career’s worth of experience to craft something near perfect, but when you look underneath you find that personability, that iron fortitude of the artist and it will give you the strength to carry on. Much like a breath, a song forms in the ether and exerts a push. When songs like that are collected and sequenced this well, the results are breath-taking.
Alain Johannes’ Hum is released July 31st via Ipecac Recordings