Review Summary: A bold, breathtaking statement about the frustration of not being able to say anything at all.
I’ve known for a while that Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson were religious (the two were members of a Christian alt rock group before starting Hammock), but I never thought much about their religious background when listening to Hammock, which has always been heavy on instrumental arrangements, light on lyricism, and more focused on feeling than meaning. That’s all true of Hammock’s latest album, Mysterium
, but upon listening to the opening track, “Now and Not Yet,” for the first time, I felt Byrd and Thompson’s faith immediately. The choral arrangement that opens the track certainly has a hymnal quality on the surface, but on a deeper level, it feels aethereal--and not in the sense in which light and airy music is often described as aethereal. It feels like Hammock has tapped into heaven and woven a small piece of it into the track.
I understand how lofty that statement sounds, but I stand by it, because it’s a testament to how flawlessly Mysterium
uses Hammock’s strengths to convey its thematic core. Mysterium
was written and recorded during and after the death of Byrd’s nephew from neurofibromatosis, and is dedicated to Byrd’s sister. It’s a curious choice, dedicating the album not to the person who died but to the person who experienced the greatest loss. Byrd undoubtedly loved his nephew, whom he describes as a “son-like figure,” and was devastated by the loss himself. The depth of his grief is evident in moments like the one from “Now and Not Yet” described above, in which Byrd seems to try to reach into heaven to touch his nephew one last time. But equally important is Byrd’s love for his sister and her grief.
is perhaps the sparsest album Hammock has produced; a massive amount of the album’s hour-long runtime is devoted to the empty spaces between notes, where the band’s trademark bittersweet harmonies echo and fade rather than building to deafening post-rock soundscapes. It’s the musical equivalent of opening one’s mouth to say something comforting to a mourning loved one, before realizing there’s nothing to say and sitting in tense silence instead. That quiet tension is also present in the band’s approach to lyrics; most of the lyrics are sung, quite unintelligibly, by the Budapest Art Choir, and even when Byrd’s voice enters on “I Would Give My Breath Away,” his words are still mostly indecipherable due to the airy production. The lyrics that are intelligible are clumsy platitudes such as, “If I could give my breath away, I would.” On a lesser album, these qualities might be flaws, but on Mysterium
they perfectly illustrate just how damn difficult it is to think of anything useful to say when someone you care about is hurting as deeply as Byrd’s sister was.
does occasionally fill in the gaps between notes (such as on the title track) or layer the different parts in such a way that they weave in and out of each other, creating a sense of greater fullness (such as on “Remembering Our Bewildered Son”). These moments are subtle, and they certainly don’t approach the sweeping peaks of previous Hammock tracks like “The Air Between Us” and “Raising Your Voice…Trying to Stop an Echo,” but in the empty context of the album as a whole, they become overwhelming, the way a simple handhold can feel like a lifeline in a time of grieving. But Mysterium
is an empathetic album, not a cathartic one, and even these moments are fraught with more tension than relief.
The closer, “This Is Not Enough (Epilogue),” feels more traditionally like a song than the more impressionistic tracks that preceded it; it’s the only track to include percussion, and the guitars are given the flexibility to move more fluidly than they did throughout the rest of the album. The drastic shift in sound, along with the knowledge that this last track is an epilogue, offer the sense that this song is viewing Byrd’s nephew’s death from a point of greater distance, after some time has passed. Some things have gone back to normal, and the loss doesn’t hurt quite as badly, or quite as consistently. But it still hurts, for both Byrd and his sister. Near the end of the song, strings enter the mix, and the track starts to swell as though building to a climactic release…and then it stops abruptly, pulling back before it can reach that catharsis. It’s a truly arresting moment that drives home the title of the song. Comforting words, musical tributes, and the passage of time are all still “not enough.”
And again, I think of Byrd and Thompson’s faith. Christian art has sought for centuries to make sense of death, especially early deaths of good people, but with Mysterium
, Hammock has found something refreshingly honest to say on the subject. As Byrd himself put it, “When something like that happens, sometimes silence is the best answer, because you don’t know what to say when someone is experiencing that much grief.” Mysterium
is a paradoxical achievement: a bold, breathtaking statement about the frustration of not being able to say anything at all.