Album Review: Hiatus Kaiyote's Mood Valiant

Words by Thomas Rutherford

It’s been six long years since Hiatus Kaiyote’s last album, the sprawling Choose Your Weapon. But, finally, the eclectic, genre-defying group is back with Mood Valiant, a focused and beautiful celebration of life. This is an album permeated by flowers and nature, showered in color and sunshine. Yet, it is also bravely willing to face the darker aspects of life, heartbreak, illness, self-doubt, though not without the fear and uncertainty that inherently comes with dealing with such powerful, daunting issues. It is this honesty, coupled with the incredibly layered musicianship and lead singer and guitar player Nai Palm’s breathy delivery, that gives the album its nuance and depth.

The album begins with slow, cinematic strings rolling in like old friends. In the background, we hear birds and wind. You can almost feel the sunshine as, faintly, we can hear someone that sounds like a nature conservation guide of some sort pointing out different kinds of parrots. The Australian four-piece traveled to Brazil to cut the record and this warm, tropical ambience pervades the whole album, starting right here with the intro, titled “Flight of the Tiger Lily.”

As the birds continue to whistle, “Tiger Lily” gives way to “Slip Into Something Soft,” another intro song of sorts. Here, the band comes in, beginning with keyboardist Simon Mavin’s laconic arpeggiating, soon to be followed by drummer Perrin Moss’s impeccable sticking and heavy kick as well as bassist Paul Bender drifting in lightly but confidently. As Palm vocalizes over her bandmates, their sound immediately becomes so deep and layered that it becomes hard to believe that this band’s only comprised of four people.

This is never more evident than on the album’s first real song, “Chivalry is Not Dead.” The final of three singles released, the song starts strong, with Mavin’s bright and almost abrasive keys matching with Palm’s incredible range while Moss and Bender hold it down, playing off each other with masterful precision. Lyrically, Palm transmogrifies herself, imagining herself as various animals like a seahorse and a hummingbird. She sings of wrapping “her wings around” someone and singing “it fills me up” as if simply giving love to someone is enough for her. When the chorus hits, it’s huge, filling the listener with Palm’s soaring vocals and musicianship that almost sounds like production wizardry. Listen closer with an understanding of the sheer caliber these guys are operating on and you realize that this simply is not the case. Were the song not so massive, I’d also be inclined to think Palm is singing about one person, one love. But it gives the first indication of a major theme that recurs throughout the album. Palm is singing to, for, and about the world. Many songs could be misconstrued as lost love songs or found love songs but they really are just all encompassing, general love songs. Palm wants to wrap herself around the world, let the people in it know that there is warmth, there is love to be found all around us at all times.

In 2018, Nai Palm was diagnosed with breast cancer. After undergoing a mastectomy, she successfully is cancer free as of 2019, however, in an interview with nme.com, she describes feeling anxiety over finishing the album, wondering if they’d be able to finish it before she died. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that but, listening to the album, one can’t help but feel an unmistakable lust for life. There is both a relief and a kind of laughter to it, a focus on looking forward to life and the light and all that it encompasses.

This brings us to the next song, “And We Go Gentle,” a song that begins with the lyrics “Tell me, can I get a light.” This phrase is repeated throughout the song and, as with many songs on the album, this simple concept, asking for a light, takes on new meaning. She might be asking for light for a smoke but as the song builds, you start realizing she is looking for a light in the darkness, a reprieve from the pain and the anxiety that comes from what she was having to deal with. And also, while the lyrics can be taken very personally, they apply to people as a whole, people stuck in their own kind of darkness. It reassures those lost that there will be a light, you just have to keep looking and there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. Also, with this song, I can’t help but draw comparisons to Dylan Thomas’s timeless poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Thomas, a notorious and unrepentant alcoholic who died quite young, wrote of tearing through life, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The themes are similar here, but Palm instead sings of taking life easily, slowly, enjoying it rather than raging through it. Savor it because it might not last.

Next, is “Get Sun,” the first single released from the album. The song, featuring Arthur Verocai, who also produced the album, takes on a celebratory, Bossa Nova vibe and literally begins with a resounding “woo!” that will be sure to fill rooms on their upcoming Australian tour. Bright keys and horns permeate the track, with Bender expertly accenting everything as Moss continues to showcase his ability to control complex beats that would be sure to overwhelm lesser players. I would like to note an incredibly interesting vocal accent Palm does in the chorus. She sings “A way to get sun when your heart’s not open.” With each word, she rises a note, but when she sings the word “heart,” she drops to the very bottom of her impressive range before returning to the higher notes. It sounds almost protective, as if she is trying to open herself up to the sun but still is having trouble pulling down some walls. This fits in with another prominent part of the song in which she sings “I wanna like/what you do/what you do” many times in a row. At first, I thought she was speaking to someone, maybe encouraging them and it can be read that way, but, as mentioned already, there is a deeper, bigger meaning there. She’s saying that to herself, that she wants to accept herself and what she is and has been through, what she’s done and will do. She says it over and over almost like a mantra, encouraging herself. This is something we all wish for, inner peace and self-acceptance after years of self-doubt. The song reflects the fact that she hasn’t necessarily achieved such peace but she is searching for it and in that search lies lessons that can lead to the type of self-actualization we all long for.

This is followed by what might be my favorite song on the album, “All the Words We Don’t Say.” It starts easily enough but soon becomes what I can only describe as a mix between prog and hip-hop. Moss steals the spotlight here as he alternates between hitting the hi-hat on the “and,” giving it this upbeat feel, and 32nd notes which emulate trap beats. This, along with the cadence with which Palm delivers the lyrics gives this song a decidedly hip-hop feel. But then, it is intercut with these full-band, multi-beat hits that are straight out of prog rock. This again highlights the band’s refusal to be pigeonholed into one genre. This frankly insane first verse then gives away to another huge chorus in which Palm sing/raps the lyrics “all the words we don’t say,” over and over. The song then drops to Palm vocalizing before returning to the insanity of the first verse before the band momentarily drops out as Palm again repeats the chorus but this time overlaying her voice multiple times which gives the song this kind of yearning. As she repeats and repeats this phrase, it grows more and more desperate, like she’s crying out to someone. It seems as if she is feeling all these things she should have said to people, the regret at having not said it, and understanding that, in the face of possible death, she will never get a chance to do so. I find this to be so powerful and tragic in that the main words she ends up saying throughout the song is “all the words we don’t say,” reflecting that need to get the words out but ultimately only being able to understand that she might have missed her chance. The song ends with contemplative instrumentation, fading out into time like the words that should’ve been said but weren’t.

An interlude of sorts, titled “Hush Rattle,” follows, a thirty second piece that feels like a deep breath, which then leads into “Rose Water.” This is a sweet song meant to reflect the peace that love can bring. The musicianship would feel almost tribal were it not for a flute part that, while almost melancholy, also feels like comfort, a smile from someone who knows what you’re going through and knows you will get through it. Palm sings “rose water/ pour a little love over me.” This is one of the many, many references to flowers that permeate the album. Roses, of course, represent love but not exactly the joy of love. Roses have thorns, they represent love and the dangers that can come with it. Rose water, however, is known to soothe skin, to revive. This shows she is not singing of romantic love, but that she wants inner joy and love and peace to wash over her, rejuvenate her. This is a song wishing for catharsis, to get rid of all the dirt that’s built up over so many years and leave her fresh and ready for what’s to come.

Next, comes my favorite of the singles released, the sleepy, sultry “Red Room.” Palm sings, “I’ve got a red room/ It is the red hour when the sun sets in my bedroom/ It feels like I’m inside a flower/ It feels like I’m inside my eyelids/ I don’t wanna be anywhere but here.” This song is a perfect example of how Palms lyricism melds with the musicianship to reflect the many things that words can mean based on context. Structurally, the song has three verses, all with the same lyrics, each meaning something different. On one hand, the song is about peace, comfort, being happy in one’s own space, a bedroom, an apartment. On another, it’s about being at peace, comfortable and happy with one’s own self. The red room can exist within her, a haven within herself. I find the line “it feels like I’m inside my eyelids” particularly indicative of this. When you’re looking at the sun with your eyes closed, you see red. But also inside your eyelids is yourself and all that you are internally. When she sings “I don’t wanna be anywhere but here” I can’t help but think of her circumstances and take that as, one, meaning her room, she doesn’t want to go anywhere. Two, she doesn’t want to be anyone besides who she is. And three, she wants to live, she doesn’t want to leave this life quite yet.

“Sparkle Tape Break Up” follows. While this is a great song, I do have to admit, I find it to be the weakest on the album. The musicianship is incredible, especially Moss’s staggered beat. Palm’s lyrics are solid, too, focusing on how she wishes that should could be less emotional, harder to affect. It is beautifully introspective. But, in comparison to all these other songs on the album that mean so many things and are so powerful, it doesn’t quite stand up for me. This could be a lesser band’s best song but, for Hiatus Kaiyote, it didn’t leave too much of an impression on me.

The album’s penultimate song, “Stone or Lavender," is the first song to have made me truly tear up in some time. It is a departure in that it features only keys, strings, and Nai Palm’s voice, but the sheer power, the weight of it hit me so hard I couldn’t stop the tears from welling up. It is a beautiful piece of art about standing your ground, being who you are, and not taking this life for granted. I’ll leave you to experience it for yourself.

Finally, we come to “Blood and Marrow.” As with every song on this album, it features deeply complex emotions, though, ultimately hope shines through. Palm sings “we are only/love and longing/ you could get through to the blood and marrow.” As she does, birds sing in the background. One gets the sense that sun is shining and that Nai Palm is smiling. She sings of this complex idea of humanity, that we long and we love and that is all there is beneath the skin. But it is important to note that she sings “you can get through,” indicating that many of the walls she had up in earlier songs have started to come down, that she has made peace with herself, finally, or at least is much closer to doing so. She does this interesting “yip” sporadically throughout the song and I take that as her cheering to the sky that she has made it this far, that life is still hers, that everyone can find joy and love and peace if they look hard enough for it and that she’s here to help. So ends Mood Valiant by Hiatus Kaiyote to a close, one of the most musically and emotionally complex albums I’ve ever heard and easily my favorite album released this year.

www.hiatuskaiyote.com

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