Published on April 10th, 2014 | by Daniel Rahe0
Kye Alfred Hillig’s Real Snow
Kye Alfred Hillig is a tall thin man. His face and bearing are spare in a photogenic way, with a refined angularity. He looks like a man who doesn’t say very much, or simply doesn’t need to. When he sings, his voice is resonant with a lonesome, aching quality — at times perhaps a bit more sincere than tasteful, but you believe him just the same.
His songs, delivered by that well-worn voice, beg for space. You find yourself wanting to hear creaking floorboards between the notes’ haunting echoes. His words are fearlessly honest, and a bit like those of Leonard Cohen, sharing a preoccupation with the gloomy allure of romantic disparity.
His third record, Real Snow, came out this week. All twelve tracks showcase his talent for evocative poetry, but it is not a record one would expect Kye Alfred Hillig to make. To his credit, he did not lean upon his strengths as a solo singer/guitarist, but instead chose to expand his palette, experimenting in ways hinted at on his previous release, Together Through It All. Tracks like “War in Spring” feature electronic elements which departed from his usual homespun acoustic sound.
Where his other albums sighed and swayed, Real Snow hyperventilates and bounces. Synthesized bass and electronic beats pulsate with a density and zeal that at times abandon the lyrics, leaving them to carry the inherent melancholy of the compositions alone. This album also wears a heavy production sheen that clearly distinguishes it from the rest of Hillig’s work.
The effect of its pulses, blips, and baps is an interesting one, and certainly not an uncommon tool of the modern singer-songwriter, but on Real Snow, it often feels like an unnecessary and distracting addition — for the most part, the songs simply don’t have the kind of rhythms that can sustain such charged emphasis. Meanwhile, the lush, radio-friendly scale of its sound makes attempts at vulnerability seem a bit forceful, if not overbearing.
When working with “electronic music,” it can be a challenge to make the beats serve the songwriting rather than festoon it, and Hillig most neatly accomplishes this on the tracks “Ugly We Were Born” and “Ice Age XVII,” the latter of which creates an irresistible atmosphere of descent, guided by his falsetto and shimmering orchestration.
Unfortunately, a lot of the other tracks don’t quite rise to the standards set by those songs, too generously drizzled with dizzy effects that dilute and obscure what they were meant to bolster. The melodies rarely find a restrained moment to breathe or simmer.
Whatever the slick arrangements convey, the themes of Real Snow do not inspire toe-tapping or car-seat-dancing. These songs are bedraggled and older-but-wiser, as best expressed in the track “None of Them Know Me Now”:
“Over the years,
My beautiful friends
Treated me better than they should
Lifted me higher than my heart was low
To stop the bleeding if they could…
You might think that you’ve seen my face
But not one of you know me now.”
Those words are sung with eloquent but wincing self-knowledge, stark remembrance of failure, and the wastefulness of regret. Time has turned chagrin into dark humor (“God just ruffles your hair when you’ve fallen”) and wary discipline (“They want real snow, but I mapped their darkened streets and gave the courtesy of replacing bulbs”). The lessons of the past are shared generously and cleverly, making Hillig a still-compelling writer.
There are many ways to evoke a feeling, and a heady production can sound just as honest as a gaunt one. So perhaps it is a bit too easy for me to question the intent of the sound arrangements Hillig and his collaborators chose, or how it all relates to his trajectory as an artist. Perhaps I simply don’t know him as well as I thought I did.