Review Summary: Morose synth-pop focused on the loss of a child, which also means the loss of so much more.
In 2016, Doug Hale, frontman of the Dallas-based Air Review, and his wife endured an unimaginable tragedy: They lost a child. More accurately put, they had a child taken from them. Fostering a young boy, the couple was forced to standby as their foster child was taken from them due to a number of bureaucratic mistakes. After having the child for over a year, they were then forced to watch him be placed with extended family that Child Protective Services had deemed unfit. “We were mom and dad as far as he was concerned,” Hale stated in a press release. This story is the thread that ties together Air Review’s new album How We Got By
. The album is inspired by grief, as all members of the band have experienced tremendous loss in the six years since the band last released an album, including the loss of family members of significant others and struggles with infertility. How We Got By
is a synth-pop recorded infused with a beautiful melancholy, and a moroseness that perfectly captures the feeling of being forced to accept the hardships that life deals out.
Using music as their therapy, Air Review went under a complete transformation on How We Got By
. 2013’s Low Wishes
was a delicious slice of delicate indie-pop, filled with hand claps, “whoa-ohs”, occasional electronic flourishes, and every other trick in the indie book. How We Get By
is entirely synth driven, with the occasional traditional aspect of the genre interspersed. Hale’s delicate voice is almost always autotuned, which creates an almost r&b sound when matched with his soft tones and touching falsetto. Lead single “People Say Things Change” is a key example of this, with Hale’s voice modified throughout the entirety of the song with single guitar notes found amid a wash of synth. Following a bridge filled with sombre wordless vocals, the song builds into an explosion of soft and distorted synth, a driving percussive beat, and a sparkling keyboard line, before dying down again into a soft ending that segues perfectly into “Love/Less”, a transition track that sounds entirely necessary. These two songs are a perfect indicator of the entire atmosphere of the album; one that is constantly on the cusp of longing, acceptance, and denial. Air Review manages to create this bleak atmosphere without sacrificing the catchy choruses or buoyancy expected within the genre.
The lyrics on the album perfectly encapsulate this atmosphere as well, with themes that sound as though the five stages of grief have no longer become stages, but instead a painfully realistic jumble of never-knowing. The theme of the Hale’s loss of Bobby, the name of their foster child, is clearly prevalent, making the album deeply personal. Opening track “Sleepless Nights” focuses on the incessant nagging thought that Bobby will likely be alone in life, or at least growing up, even with the sacrifices Hale and his wife made. This leads into “You Won’t Be Coming Home”, a song with a theme that is clearly reflected by its title: The slow realization that Bobby is gone and will forever remain gone. The simply titled track “Bobby” has possibly the most painful lyrics on the album, with Hale reflecting on all of the worries he has for the child in his new home. Among these include no one hearing Bobby cry, Bobby not getting fed enough. After each of these worries, he sings “I’m starting to believe Jesus will not hear you crying out/Or does he even care at all”. This is a shocking revelation following the Christian-tinged lyrics of their prior album. All of this leads into an absolutely cathartic guitar solo. Even the transition songs like “Home” contain incredibly poignant lyrics, including descriptors of Bobby when he first arrived at the Hale household.
No matter how deeply personal the themes of the album are, this doesn’t make it inaccessible to the listener. While many of the songs focus on Hale’s specific grief, the band worked together to create a record that is focused on the theme of loss itself. “Get Me to Heaven” deals with feelings of helplessness and a need for escape, while “Threads” and “Piece by Piece” could be about any sort of heartbreak, whether it be the loss of a child, death of a family member, or the end of a relationship with a significant other. While it’s true that there isn’t much optimism or pep to be found on the album, that is for the better, as it would sound disingenuous. Instead, Air Review have opted for something even better: The feeling of not being alone in sadness and the willingness to power through while still feeling understandably lost. They don’t try to spread some feeling that everything will be better or that you’ll make it through - Their music instead shares the fact that these hardships are simply a part of life. We don’t have to like it or accept that fact, but we do owe it to those we love to continue to live our lives in spite of it.
That feeling is captured in album highlight “You’ve Gotta Love Somebody”, as well as the closing two tracks. “You’ve Gotta Love Somebody” begins with, presumably, a snippet of a therapy session, with the therapist asking “You’re afraid too, aren’t you, for Bobby"” and Hale’s wife responding without hesitation “Yep”. The therapist responds with, “That’s something you live with every day”, before the song immediately flies into the catchiest synth line of the album. Essentially taking the age old adage “Tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all”, they adapt it to say that it’s still ok to feel grief over this loss. The track becomes perhaps even more powerful as it is one of the few with Hale’s voice completely unaltered: In this song, he is no longer on the cusp of multiple feelings. He’s making it clear that he has accepted the loss and can move on with life, but that does not mean that he does not have a right to feel immense sadness over the loss of Bobby.
Closing duo “See You Still” and “Fall Along” are equally sad and some of the few signs of anger on the album, as the prior calls against the system that took Bobby, with samples of a psychologist stating all of the horrible effects on a child grows up in a home that doesn’t nurture it. This sample is coupled with a repeating bouncy synthline and Hale’s vocals in the background saying that he still sees his child and loves it, most likely in a way that it’s new home will not be able to do. “Fall Along” is a minimal track, that ends with Hale’s vocals at their most altered over a strummed acoustic guitar. As he sings “It was always going to take a lifetime to get to where we’re going”, the album cuts off before the word “going” is fully completed, signifying that, just as the album never gets a true ending, neither will the grieving.