Siblings Tyler and Maggie Heath, known as the Oh Hellos, with their band. Photo from Oh Hellos' official website.
Review by Daven McQueen
Siblings Maggie and Tyler Heath may be known onstage as the Oh Hellos, but their sophomore album, Dear Wormwood, is all about saying goodbye. Its title is borrowed from a character in C.S. Lewis’s novel The Screwtape Letters, and the album is written as such: in a series of letters chronicling the final stages of an unhealthy relationship. Dear Wormwood tells a goodbye story, and with its ethereal vocals and swelling instrumentals, seems almost like the soundtrack to an epic fairytale.
This is not unlike the mystical feel of duo’s first album; in fact, their latest release serves as a sequel to Through the Deep, Dark Valley, following the same unnamed protagonist as she begins to move on. Both albums feature the same clear guitar chords and steady drum beats that characterize the Oh Hellos’ folksy sound, but Dear Wormwood leaves more space to breathe. Tucked amidst the poetic lyrics are short instrumentals that transition seamlessly into the subsequent tracks, almost like pauses in the letter writer’s thoughts. These spaces without lyrics make this album more thoughtful than the first, and listeners can connect with the poignant sense of loss throughout.
In keeping with the story format of the album, none of the songs have choruses; instead, they are written in a narrative format, the way a letter would be written. The opening tracks are affectionate yet bittersweet, with Maggie crooning lyrics like “I know I shouldn’t love you / But I do.” Though the upbeat melodies remain, the lyrics shift until it’s clear that the speaker understands and is at peace with her situation. “I am leaving,” the siblings harmonize in “Exeunt,” repeating this phrase at the end of each verse.
Artfully woven between the songs about saying goodbye are pieces whose lyrics belong on the pages of a storybook. The duo sings about knights, kings, and deathly horses in songs so rich with imagery that even the opening lines paint pictures of faraway kingdoms. The complex emotions throughout the album are incredibly potent, but there is a simultaneous whimsical quality to the music and lyrics; listeners will feel swept away to another world entirely.
The album reaches a crescendo near the end with its title track. “Dear Wormwood” does not disappoint; it unites the emotions of the preceding songs in one powerful, hard-hitting piece. In an interview with Paste Magazine, Tyler explains that he wrote the song “from a place of wrestling with [his] own demons, wanting to move past them and...let them go.” This feeling shines through in the repetition of “I know who you are now,” sung with a haunting echo that will reverberate through listeners’ minds like the backing drum beats. This lyric eventually evolves, so that at the end, it becomes “I know who I am now.” These words rise up confidently amid a chorus of triumphant drumbeats as the writer of these letters finally sets herself free from her past love.
Ultimately, that is what this album is: triumphant. There is, though, a bit of a lull following the title track, which on its own would have been a solid ending. The swinging instrumentals of “Danse Macabre,” an 1874 orchestral piece by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, seem slightly out of place following the intensity of “Dear Wormwood.” But despite this brief decline, the album ends on a note of victory. The closing track, “Thus Always to Tyrants,” is a lively finale, celebrating the end of an era and, with the gentle tone of bells in the background, ringing in a new one. With the full sounds of this song and the rest on the album, it’s hard to believe that it was recorded independently, with the entire process occurring in the Heath’s home in San Marcos, Texas.
And perhaps the fact that it wasn’t recorded in a major studio makes this album even more genuine. The siblings use the small-scale production to their advantage, because though the sounds of their music are big, there is an intimacy present that makes every listen feel like a private concert. With its raw, heartfelt lyrics and vibrant melodies, Dear Wormwood is a powerful sophomore album deserving of high recognition and praise. The Oh Hellos have done much more here than write beautiful music: they have crafted an inviting album will inspire listeners to write their own ghosts a final goodbye.