Kye Alfred Hillig is a roving wanderer when it comes to musical styles. 2013’s Together Through It All showed off the diversity of his musical interests, spanning emotive balladry, indie rock force, and electronic pop; since then, his last three albums have borne out specific interests in longform statements. The electro-pop of Real Snow showed off his ability to make a club jam (“None of Them Know Me Now” should be on every party play list, seriously), while The Buddhist impressed me with just a nylon-string acoustic guitar and Hillig’s poignant lyrics. Now Great Falls Memorial Interchange flexes his alt-country muscles (with indie-rock touches). Great Falls is a record that I felt immediately at home with, as Hillig’s confident songwriting, sharp lyrics, and indelible voice create an experience both comfortable and exciting.
Hillig’s calling this his “punk rock record,” which comes out perhaps more in his self-assured attitude toward the songs than in his actual songwriting. The most punk-rock moves here are the abrupt, mid-phrase ending of opener “Always Leaving Early Deb Lake Tahoe” and several wordy, complicated song titles–the approach to the tunes, however, does seem a little more confrontational, a little more brash, and a little more pointed. The music is actually more in line with alt-country than punk-rock fury, but hey–country can resist, and “The Church Street Saint Leads the Marching Band for Truth” has some prominent snare drive. Punk rock is what you make it.
The zinging pedal steel of “Louder Blonde” and “Jennifer Love Is Some Ghetto Behind Your Eyes” situates Hillig’s latest instantiation firmly within alt-country, while tracks like “To Be Good” and “Big Sleeping Nowhere” point back to his older sounds. Overall the songs are noisier and more-electric guitar-based than his previous two albums, but they never get so noisy as to obscure Hillig’s vocals or make the lyrics incomprehensible. Tunes here clang and clatter at their loudest, but they never lose a sweetness in the melodic content. The balancing act that Hillig manages to get all his disparate sounds and ideas to work together with a centering concept of alt-country is a pretty impressive feat. Hillig always sounds fully in control of what’s going on in this record, whether it’s the songwriting, the arrangements or the lyrics.
As impressive as songwriting is, the lyrics are the best indicator of Hillig’s confidence: he’s always been an incisive writer (see the title track of Together Through It All for early proof), but here he seems to have come into his own with a consistently high level of lyricism. Whether he’s questioning the foundations of morality (“To Be Good,” “Almighty God Flaccid River of Sorrow”), writing John Darnielle-level complex story songs (“Always Leaving Early Deb Lake Tahoe,” “Whitney Houston”) or writing a painfully honest (anti-?)love song (“In Tandem”), every lyric seems to stick in my mind and take up residence.
The story-songs in particular are memorable, as the narrators of Hillig’s tunes here accuse more than accommodate: third people are charged with not believing in romantic love or God after a breakup (“Throwing Up”), offering cheap sympathy that’s really more about the speaker (“Almighty God Flaccid River of Sorrow”), and doing various complicated and seemingly terrible things (“Yes Grinning Face of Death”). This is a rare album that can work in both directions: come for the music, stay for the lyrics; come for the lyrics, stay for the music.
And yet the punk-rock confidence in his songwriting and the refining of his lyrics are achievements that can be somewhat missed on first listen, because Hillig’s voice is so arresting here. Hillig’s vocal timbre is idiosyncratic in a pleasant way–he delivers his high tenor in a way that somehow manages to sound yelpy and round at the same time, coming off ultimately as deeply earnest. This allows him to create songs of great conviction and songs that float tenderly along with ease. His performances here are often mesmerizing in their melodic quality, as his vocal tone and timbre draws me in and won’t let me go. “Ancient Burial Ground” shows off his ability to sound calm and desperate in equally interesting measures–it’s just genuinely fun to listen to Kye Alfred Hillig sing on this record. That’s a rare thing.
Great Falls Memorial Interchange is an album that succeeds on all levels: the songwriting, the lyrics, the vocal performances. Everything is just top-notch. Even though these songs deal with difficult emotions, nowhere do these songs become brittle or unrelatable–the clarity of the lyrics, the ease of the melodies and Hillig’s inviting voice make them fit like a new coat. I hadn’t heard any of these songs before, but they felt like old friends as soon as I had. Highly recommended.