The Oh Hellos Write Back
Imagine Mumford and Sons never went electric, added a female vocalist and six other instrumentalists and doubled-down on their Chestertonian spirit.
This is the listening experience of The Oh Hellos, a sibling-led band out of southern Texas that’s somewhere between the 21st century folk revival and a 14th century renaissance fair. After an impressive debut titled Through the Deep Dark Valley, The Oh Hellos have released a “sequel” album titled Dear Wormwood, “a collection of songs inspired in part by C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters and Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, mythology and folklore, and apocalyptic literature” about “a protagonist trapped in an abusive relationship, by way of letters written to the antagonist.”
Like Deep Dark Valley, Dear Wormwood unfolds like an evenly staggered procession of ethereal meditations and wild crescendos. There’s never a dull moment, musically or lyrically. “Bitter Water” and pull us into the torrents of doomed relationships and broken hearts, a theme that persists throughout. But we’re also tipped off to a deeper drama: “I feel it in my soul,” they sing on “Bitter,” “I feel the empty hole, the cup that can’t be filled …”
As the album progresses, a shift occurs that’s so natural and unavoidable that the album still feels like it’s all about one thing. Love, passion and desire become embroiled in questions about mortality and meaning that shape them, mirror them, outrun them. “Pale White Horse” and the Chieftans-sounding instrumental “Danse Macabre” confront us with a memento mori, while “Dear Wormwood” carries the promise of a “a brighter world beyond myself”:
At the heart of all of this is bad news. In C. S. Lewis’s book Screwtape, a senior demon trains a “junior tempter” about how best to bring down his “patient” through a series of subtle (and not so subtle) distractions, distortions and deceptions. Dear Wormwood, on the other hand, is like one patient’s look back at the whole training session from the other side of the curtain. The singers point thumbs, not fingers—like the climax of The Machinist, the scene is a reproach directed inside—but the album still pours shot after shot of the knowledge of sin. Only then does the thirst for redemption appear, catapulting us out into the merry victory romp of “Soldier, Poet, King.”
This is the hinterlands where the Oh Hellos dwell. They dance and sing in the romance of religion, but it’s a fleshy, messy affair filled with the wisdom of the past and the “fear and trembling” of the future. There’s no messaging or moralizing and nothing really “positive” or “encouraging” in any conventional sense, effectively shutting out Dear Wormwood from “Christian radio.” But it also offers something more universal and more powerful: the drama of being transformed into a new creature.
Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher and cultural commentator at AleteiaandWord on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.