Reviewed by: Max Miller
Singer-Songwriter Neil Holyoak was born with the kind of name that means you need to grow up to be either a folk singer or a porn star. Holyoak chose to do both. He is a folk singer in the literal sense and a porn star sheerly of the mind, helping listeners reach a climax with his wistful lyrics. His father was a steam engine. His mother was America itself. When he was a boy, his uncle made him shoot his beloved dog Spot, and it was that same day he vowed to join a labor union, for he knew then that the workers must stand united. People criticized Bob Dylan for going electric. Those same people criticized Neil Holyoak for going vegan for one summer back in ‘09, before changing his mind because he “missed hamburgers.” None of this is remotely true, of course, save for his name being Neil Holyoak. But goddammit, no one ever just mythologizes artists anymore.
From the surname Holyoak comes the name Holy Oak, a band name only lamentable in that I often conflate it with Wye Oak or Holy Ghost! or both. And from Holy Oak comes Second Son, the project’s fourth full-length (fifth, if you count 2014’s Rags Across The Sun, which was billed under Neil Holyoak). In spite of the framing of Holy Oak as a group effort, the project really revolves around Holyoak himself as he rotates through musical collaborators as rapidly as he rotates through homes — he currently resides in LA (doesn’t everyone?), but has spent time in Montreal, British Columbia and Hong Kong. This time around, he has enlisted master producer Howard Bilerman, known for his work with Leonard Cohen, Wolf Parade, Nap Eyes and some unpopular group by the name of Arcade Fire.
Bilerman helps craft lush nests of twangy guitar and reverberant organ in which Holyoak’s voice might roost. Holyoak possesses the kind of perfectly untrained voice of a Neil Young or Jason Molina, and, indeed, the kind of triumphant sadness of records like Magnolia Electric Co. or Tonight’s the Night can be found on cuts like “Basilisk” or “Dead Time.” The title track drifts along on a waltzing river of strings and electric guitar arpeggios as a gaggle of ghostly backing vocalists beckon listeners to throw themselves into the water. The short, yet plodding “Laughing Man” features both oddly-futuristic synth pads and mournful horns. It’s a densely-produced record, is what I’m getting at.
And it’s a good thing Second Son is so immaculately arranged, because, at the end of the day, as great as this record sounds, and as many legendary songwriters as it recalls, Holyoak’s lyrics rarely cut you to your core the way some of his predecessors’ did. One of his best lines, ironically, comes in the acoustic ballad “Isabelle,” where he sings, “Isabelle always told me not to worry / When I was writing songs / She said, ‘If you write a bad line / Well, don’t hurt yourself over it.’” Holyoak doesn’t write bad lines, per se, but he often writes vaguely about sadness, the past, redemption and uncertainty — all par for the course when it comes to this type of music. Each of these subjects has an inherent weight to it, but it seems as if Holyoak merely coasts on that implicit heaviness instead of finding a way to deliver a really killer line that hits the listener while they’re down.
On the whole, Second Son is a fine album, and every instrument present on it, including Holyoak’s voice, sounds just great. If it were more gripping lyrically, the album could push Holy Oak to become one of those names you see on just about every festival line-up of the summer. But between songs made up of empty platitudes and songs like “Just Married” that attempt to employ a Sun Kil Moon-like stream-of-consciousness to evoke depth, there’s just something lacking that can’t be ignored. But that’s okay. The central takeaway of “Isabelle” is that songwriting isn’t an activity you either do or don’t do. It’s a process.