Greg Holden’s “I Don’t Believe You”
Gino calls Greg Holden’s latest release “correct.” Find out what that means by clicking over!Guest Writer
out of 10
I Don't Believe You
May 31, 2011
Greg Holden’s third major release, I Don’t Believe You, is an album that does everything correctly. But unfortunately, not too much more than that.
Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, Holden has crafted an album that’s all about what it means to be on one’s own. Having put a literal ocean between himself and his homeland, it’s clear that he understands this feeling, and that he’s poured a lot of his own life into the lyrics. With verses such as “I’ve traveled so far from my Great British home,” and “They said if I came here with my English charm / Then by the end of each night, I’d have one on each arm,” I feel as though a personal story arises by the end of this record, not just artistic abstractions. So when Holden sings about loneliness in “Hell and Back,” or about emptiness in “Bar On A,” I not only bob along. I believe him.
Whether about loneliness in love or uncertainty in a new place, these songs dip their toes into some of the coldest waters of sadness and loss. Often with patient strumming, they eulogize dreams that will never be real, shine light on holes that only ever get deeper, always more abysmal and black. There is a desperation behind every song, a meaty grit to the vocals that scatter throughout the album like audible breadcrumbs, tracing the way back to his confessed Dylan influences. As with the fiery harmonies of “American Dream” or the blood-rushing chorus of “Following Footsteps,” Holden finds a way to vocally hulk-out every now and then. At times, you can practically see the Banner-like shirt ripping off him, breaking free of the musical constraints as he gives his voice center-stage. It’s a rawness that Dylan is known for, and that Holden pulls off just fine.
More than just emotion, though, these songs also bring with them a certain level of complexity. For instance in “I Don’t Believe You,” a song all about Holden’s skepticism toward today’s artists and their false sincerity, he creates an interesting (but not distracting) duality between music and lyrics. The music in this song is almost celebratory in its crescendo, a tinny galloping that you could easily tap a toe to as you forget about the lyrics. If you listen closely, however, the words are all about distrust, about seeing through the mechanized emotions and disingenuous nature of modern artists and industrial pop. Essentially what they do is undercut the strumming, creating a schism that highlights Holden’s own skepticism. The music and lyrics don’t seem to match.
There’s a similar complexity in “American Dream.” Written about a poor and starving couple, the lyrics roll out, rawhide style, over an ironic musical loop. As the couple fantasizes about their plans to “live the American dream, / be millionaires by the sea” (meanwhile remaining sick and alone and aware that “They will never understand”), the music tumbleweeds out in the background like a prepackaged anthem to a B-grade western film. All that’s missing is the whipcrack. As a result, Holden manages to poke fun at the American dream, exploiting it as an impossible fantasy while also a stock tune that we all comfortably recognize.
Musical binaries are all over this album. “As Far as I Can,” for example, sounds like a cheery throwaway at first, but turns out to be anything but. Fraught with lines such as “I’m gonna trade all this comfort / for the edge of a knife,” it’s really a song about the inability to find happiness, and escaping in the hopes of finding it, desperate to get “as far as I can from here.”
In “Empty Hands,” Holden stuffs the music with sad minor riffs, a sentiment enhanced by the haunting synth organs and subtle distortion. This shakiness underscores the emotional unrest of the song, full of rueful lines like “I’m holding on / as my life slips away.”
And the same is true for “Hell And Back.” Over-washed with trembling bass tones and electro distortion, the music creates an angst beneath the steady-rock rhythm, a fire beneath the skin that sometimes breaks loose, taking the listener, audibly, “from hell and back.” This is especially meaningful when you also consider the back-and-forth pull of the lyrics: “I think of her when I’m out here alone / I think of how she don’t know me at all.”
But unfortunately, what I’m mostly talking about here is concept, and there’s more to music than that. The meaning of these songs are clear. They are clever and well-packaged and do exactly what they’re supposed to do. But for all their cleverness, they also end up being pretty uninteresting. At least in a musical sense. There’s no real polyphony on this album, no intriguing instrumentals or multi-layered elements. The songs unfurl in straight lines, skinny beige carpets of sound. They are familiar and inoffensive, like Kincaid paintings or plain white t-shirts. A music-by-numbers affair.
Don’t get me wrong — Greg Holden is plenty talented. And if this album happened to come on while I was riding in a car, or sitting in my apartment, I wouldn’t turn it off. But I probably wouldn’t remember it, either. The best way I can describe it is that it’s an album that does exactly its job and nothing more, the sort of thing that I would expect to hear playing in the background of an ABC emotional drama. Something like Grey’s Anatomy or Private Practice, at the poignant denouement, when our protagonist is learning some sad life lesson about loneliness or loss. The music is melodic and inconspicuous, and it would function in the back of a moving montage just fine. But it isn’t great. It’s an enthusiastic “meh.” An album deserving a pat on the back. Good in an expected way. It is, in short, “correct.”