Poor Tim Howard. Things never seem to work out for him. He’s perpetually dejected with the ennui of everyday life. His plans never go through and of course he never gets the girl. He’s sort of like a 20-something Charlie Brown. And to make matters worse, you’ve never even heard of him.
Like many guys his age, he puts his frustration to music. But unlike so many singer/songwriters of the Live Journal generation, Howard, under the moniker of Soltero (the apt Spanish word meaning lonely bachelor) articulates his frustration smartly and sweetly. More than just another hopeless college grad, Howard empathetically conveys his desperation and angst – and here’s the key – without sounding desperate or angsty. It’s Howard’s affable, everyman voice that guarantees his sincerity.
Now that we’re all done knocking the latest Death Cab record, we can move on to lyrics Ben Gibbard wishes he could write. Lines like: “You thought you’d be home by now / Another year wasted alive / Will you ever be filed in that celestial archive” are witty, emotional, and all-too-human. Howard’s lyrics are some of the most engaging and vulnerable you still haven’t heard. To make matters even better, Howard’s self-deprecating wit actually makes the music more likeable, as it never becomes too clever for its own good, a shortcoming we’ve heard one too many times from the likes of Stephin Merritt and countless others. Unlike them, this guy really means it.
Then there’s the music itself. Whether it’s sparse, acoustic numbers like “If I Had a Chance” and “Rosie Day,” the AM pop of “From the Station,” or the psych-rock fuzz outro of “Ghost at the Foot of the Bed,” all work as fitting backdrops to for tales of relationship woe. But not only is Howard a profound songwriter, he’s also a true pop auteur. His melodic sensibility shines throughout Hell Train. The jubilant surrender of “Hands Up” is a striking contrast to its lyrical resignation, making it all the more potent. The bleak “Acadian Coast” is also evocative, ripe with its poetic imagery, sullen guitar and all the strife of a bitter breakup.
Then there’s “Songs of the Season” with its standout melody and bittersweet contempt for holiday commercialism. “The songs of the season get under your skin like a tapeworm / Now the wind hits your face with a familiar sting / And it seems like the whole world is preparing to sing / You just keep saying nothing, it keeps you from saying the wrong thing.” It’s with words like these that you find yourself nodding along with a pout and a sigh of appreciative recognition. (It’s also an excellent compliment to “Oh Noelle,” his 2002 contribution to the compilation This is Christmas on which he compares office holiday parties to “a thousand little paper cuts.” Good luck tracking that one down.)
It’s a lot to take in on one listen. The interweaving harmonies and continual lyrical stunners make Hell Train quite a rewarding ride. After all, something here is bound to resonate with anyone who’s ever more than a little hopeless. On “Rosie Day,” Howard sings “Oh I wish that she were mine / I’d finally be fine / She just smiles and says some other time.” It’s simple but delivered so purely that it’s sure to induce pathos, but never pity. Hell Train remains emotional without being “emo” or any other easily labeled or manufactured genre. For our sake, let’s hope Howard’s in never “finally fine.” We’d all be better off.