Pain, suffering, trauma, and heartache are often the fuel that drives art. Out of despair and loss, a book or song can become a channel through which an artist cries out, laments, and rages; it becomes a way to process, wrestle with, and hopefully, heal from their ordeals.
But one of art’s greatest and most mysterious powers is that it can transform someone’s pain and suffering into something beautiful that others can enjoy, identify and empathize with, and find meaningful — not by dismissing the artist’s pain or offering it up for mere voyeurism, but rather, by redeeming it. Or, as Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote back in 1820, “our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”
If ever there was an album informed by pain, it’d be Air Review’s How We Got By. Although its 13 songs are certainly sweet to the ears — thanks to a nigh-blinding studio polish, glossy synth arrangements, crisp beats, and heavily processed vocal harmonies — a closer listen reveals brokenness and hurt at the album’s core.
Which isn’t at all surprising once you know the album’s backstory. While working on How We Got By, frontman Doug Hale and his wife lost custody of a baby boy they’d fostered for a year; due to a series of bureaucratic mistakes, he was taken away after his first birthday. Shortly thereafter, Hale’s bandmates experienced various personal tragedies, as well. Working on How We Got By then became therapy for Air Review’s members. (“A place to share burdens and turn them into something meaningful,” as the press release puts it.)
Understood from that context, lyrics like the following take on an emotional honesty and oomph that belies the lush sounds and arrangements enveloping them:
- “After all the sleepless and the breathless nights/You will sleep alone… When you come and find me in the afterlife/I will take you home” (“Sleepless Nights”)
- “If you could have stayed/I’d have never let you go/Love is the price I pay” (“You Won’t Be Coming Home”)
- “Bobby when you leave/I worry she won’t feed you/I’m starting to believe/Jesus will not hear you crying out” (“Bobby”)
- “I hope one day that you realize/I see you in the morning light/Every moment you were on my mind” (“Morning Light”)
Occasionally, the studio polish and trickery undercuts the music’s emotions. “Home” has some of the album’s most cutting lyrics (“Held you every night alone/Her cigarettes had stained your clothes/Is she better for you?”) while “Get Me to Heaven” is pensive on paper (“I can’t help thinking that there must be so much more/I pray these songs will give me wings and take me to a new place”). However, the heavy use of auto-tuning in both songs proves distracting, especially considering that Hale proves elsewhere on the album that his clean, clear voice doesn’t really need any augmentation or “fixing.”
But most of the time, the audio polish is a boon to How We Got By. Put simply, the album’s airiness makes it easier to handle and process the heaviness of its themes. At their best, these songs can take you unawares, tricking you into thinking they’re just catchy, radio-friendly pop songs — be it the soulful “People Say Things Change” (here, the auto-tuning is just right) or the yacht rock-isms of “You Gotta Love Somebody” — only to then surprise you (in a good way) with the heartache lurking just below the shiny surface.
I’ve never experienced the loss of a child myself, nor the ups and downs of the foster care system. I can only imagine the sorrow, anger, and frustration in such a situation. But listening to these songs brings that reality into a sharper focus. And I find myself hoping, along with Hale, for an eventual reunion, in this life or the next.