It’s a weird thing about being a music “critic”: you’re consistently comparing the songs and albums you hear to other icons and indices from your own listening experience and trying to decipher individual influences within an artist’s sound, but in most cases, you have no real idea whether those influences were there at all or whether the similarities you noticed were intentional. Instead, you’re left driving blind, projecting your own musical history and preferences onto the work of someone you’ve never even met or spoken to, let alone traded records with. But that’s what makes it such a pleasure when someone you know unleashes a remarkable musical work. You get to hear the music they’ve been championing to you for years – the songs you’ve shared, the musical moments you’ve both remarked upon – reflected back at you in their own musical creations. In essence, you hear the person you have gotten to know encapsulated in the words and chords of the music they write, and in doing so, you get to know that person a little bit better.
That’s the case with Under the Brilliant Lights, an unqualified triumph from Boston electro-pop duo Hailey, It Happens. Comprised of Bobby DiBari (keyboards) and resident AbsolutePunk poster, Chris Cleary (vocals) – two guys who have been creating music together since they were 14 years old – Hailey, It Happens bring their unabashed love for music to life in new and exciting ways on their third release. The EP may be only six songs and 25 minutes in length, but it covers a landscape of music that those who know Chris won’t be surprised to hear. You can sense the longing heartbreak of Journey’s “Faithfully” in the tentative piano chords at the top of opening track “Holiday,” or the wistful earnestness of fellow Boston songwriter (and Absolute 100 veteran) Chad Perrone throughout the entire record. You can even look at a title like “52nd Street Surrender” and take as a clear reference to Chris’s favorite Billy Joel record. But perhaps best of all, you can hear Hailey, It Happens coming into their own in a way they haven’t on either of their previous releases two, 2009’s Everything for You and 2011’s Aurora.
Indeed, even so many years into their partnership, Cleary and DiBari are charting new territory here. The production sounds crisper, the melodies are more indelible, the lyrics hit harder, and Cleary simultaneously sounds smoother, more confident, and more emotional than he has on past records. That much is revealed in “Holiday,” a slow-burn pop track with shimmering piano melodies and a surprisingly catchy hook. Producer Scott Riebling lays an impressive groundwork for the band here, balancing drum machines, keyboards, and well…more keyboards into a sonic palette that sounds more lush that it probably has any right to. But the song works because it is a perfect collaborative effort between Cleary and DiBari. The latter wrote the lyrics, but the former sings them, delivering one devastating lyric after another (a second verse couplet that goes “I been in repair since the summer months/I’d destroy the coast just to see you once,” hits the hardest), and cultivating a stirring hymn to the naiveté of young love and how sometimes, it just can’t help but fade away.
As good of a starting point as “Holiday” is, however, it’s not the best track here, nor is “Cuernavaca,” the album’s more electronic-leaning first single, or “Washington Square,” which parlays an incredibly simplistic piano loop into a percussive reminiscence of 80s pop. Instead, Cleary and DiBari save their best songs for last. First is “52nd Street Surrender,” where haunting keyboard delays and flitting synth string blips accompany the narrator on a romantic exodus from the purgatory of workday pressures and toward the utopian ideal symbolized by the distant flicker of city lights. It’s Cleary’s play for a “Born to Run” or “Thunder Road” escapist song, from the hero’s willful insistence that the highway holds salvation (“They say that every road ends in just another little town/And every heart finds its way to an equal comedown, but we won’t believe them”) to the girl who may not be a beauty, but hey, she’s alright (“And the way that you toss back your hair, baby, you look alright”). But unlike Springsteen, who took a whole other album cycle to realize the futility of his escape plan, Cleary twists the knife early. “We throw our hands in the air, but it feels less like a celebration than an exhausted form of capitulation” he sings as the song nears its conclusion (which, let’s be honest, is a great fucking lyric), and right before the tune expires, we’re furnished with another, more concise realization: “Escape has always been a dream; it’s just a lie.” If you’ve ever lived in a small town, chances are you’ll relate to this song.
On many other albums, “52nd Street Surrender” would be the unparalleled highlight, but not on Under the Brilliant Lights. That title belongs instead to the EP’s grand finale, a harrowing cut called “Emerald” that ends the record in emotional exhaustion and turmoil. Sparse piano melodies and static drum machine percussion establish the broken and resigned mood of the song, a jagged lullaby that lays a damaged and dysfunctional love story to rest for good. “This is your last song, then I swear that I’m done,” Cleary vows on the chorus, “I’m selling back these memories, broken secondhand dreams, you can have every one.” The fact that the rest of the song is built around a patchwork of memories makes his threat seem an empty one – the girl at the heart of the song can’t be forgotten – but that only makes the slowly unfolding narrative that much more heartbreaking.
For most of its runtime, “Emerald” captures the scope of a seemingly happy relationship, from the summer nights and the first butterflies of love to the kisses and the long days spent together. Eventually, though, the song makes a very harsh turn to detail how everything fell apart in the worst way possible. I’ll let listeners derive their own interpretations from dark lines like “And I remember you collapsed on the floor” and “When you told me the story of your father and the flickering light/And I saw the scars when you just couldn’t hurt anymore,” but suffice to say that “Emerald” has the sort of bruising and blistering climax that leaves mark. You need only listen to the small wavers in Cleary’s voice as he repeats the song’s closing lines (pained wails of “I don’t want to hurt anymore”) to know that these aren’t memories that can be simply discarded or sold back.
Melding classic songwriting themes, grandiose nostalgia, and a plethora of infectious musical influences, Under the Brilliant Lights is a stirring and touching collection of songs that will play equally well on frigid winter afternoons and muggy summer nights. Aurora was a very solid album, and I’ll always smile at the “Thunder Road” and “59 Sound” references on “Saturday Night Fever Dreams” (from Everything for You), but on their latest record, Hailey, It Happens are reaching new levels of emotional resonance and musical self-assuredness, and dammit if they don’t make 2014’s most promising EP as a result. It’s a heavy record, filled to the brim with stories of young love, bruised dreams, and broken hearts. But with the gentle sonic swirl of DiBari’s keyboards and the heartfelt honesty of Cleary’s delivery, these stories are worth listening to over and over again.