H. Hawkline - Milk for Flowers Music Album Reviews

H. Hawkline - Milk for Flowers Music Album Reviews
The Welsh songwriter’s fifth album flits between whimsical psych-pop levity and candid expressions of grief. At its best, it brings the two together.

In the learned vocabulary of pop music, staccato means happy and languorous, sustained notes signify sad. It’s the “Getting Better” vs. “She’s Leaving Home” binary established long ago by McCartney and co. But to wilfully defy this shorthand—to write melancholy songs at an upbeat clip? That’s where things get interesting. 

It’s a challenge that’s been accepted by generations of songwriting legends, from Harry Nilsson, whose early gems, like “One” and “Daddy’s Song,” made heartbreak sound bright and effervescent, to Robyn, whose 2010 classic “Dancing on My Own” helped popularize the “sad banger.” It’s also an M.O. of sorts for the Welsh singer-songwriter H. Hawkline (born Huw Evans), who recently mused that “setting sad lyrics to something more upbeat is more jarring and impactful.” Hawkline’s latest album, Milk for Flowers, flits between whimsical psych-pop and candid grief, and is most affecting when it finds a way to bring those two poles together. 

Hawkline began his career with fingerpicking folk on 2010’s A Cup of Salt, but in recent years, he’s steered towards an ornate art-pop sound that draws influence from his fellow countryman Gruff Rhys, who’s brought him on tour, as well as longtime collaborator Cate Le Bon, who produced Milk for Flowers. Even when the songs are steeped in sadness, there’s a McCartney-esque bounce to them: a pitter-patter levity to the piano arrangements in “Milk for Flowers” and “Denver,” a perpetual forward motion to the playful thump of “Plastic Man.” 

That cognitive dissonance is a meaningful ingredient of an album that’s explicitly concerned with how loss is camouflaged and concealed in the theater of daily life. Hawkline’s mother died of cancer in 2018; do these songs reckon with the surreal side of grief or is grief an inherently surreal state of mind? The answer floats just out of reach. The title track flits from a chorus that highlights Hawkline’s knack for oddball imagery (“I feel like a nun picking roses”) to a bridge that cuts right to the heart of the matter: “And I miss you/So much,” he sings in a quivering croon.

“Suppression Street” brings us to an avenue that will be as familiar as Fascination Street or Respectable Street. With the poetic care and inventiveness typical of his work, Hawkline satirizes the daily ritual of suppressing one’s heartache and pretending all is fine: “I buy my makeup on Suppression Street/I paint my face for everyone I meet/With the elegance of Nero.” Later, on the record’s tenderer second half, he lets the facade slip away, addressing his mother directly on the plaintive “Like You Do”: “As the evening plays us out/And I want to let you know/All the ways I’ll need you.” Like grief itself, the song is a one-sided conversation, never silenced, never resolved.

With his peculiar sensibility, jaunty piano-and-horn style, and fondness for playfully enigmatic wordplay (a standout: “Peace comes for dinner/But I’m forever eating lunch”), Hawkline is operating on a similar plane as collaborator Aldous Harding. (The two have been musically and romantically linked; Hawkline both opened for and performed in the New Zealand songwriter’s band on her 2022 tour.) But Hawkline is not quite as expressive or eccentric a vocalist as Harding, and these songs’ arrangements sometimes feel too fussy, too polite, to summon the emotions they promise. “Denver” drags on for six relatively static minutes, while the limp synth pop of “Athens at Night” never quite matches the wooziness of its imagery. 

Fortunately, Milk for Flowers’ third act is its richest. “It’s a Living” strikes that rare balance between piano-pop whimsy and melancholy. Its singalong chorus, a mantra of appreciation for “old women” and “young children,” is stirring and rendered without any hint of condescension. “Empty Room,” the closer, is drifting and elegiac, reminiscent of the heady, countryfied ballads Super Furry Animals used to put near the end of their records. Hawkline drowns his sorrows in pedal-steel Americana as he reckons with the physical absence grief leaves behind: “Take the lock off the door/All will be as before in that/Empty room.” Some fill that empty space with photos or shrines. H. Hawkline seems to be filling it with songs.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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H. Hawkline - Milk for Flowers Music Album Reviews H. Hawkline - Milk for Flowers Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on March 20, 2023 Rating: 5


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