Love's Holiday by OxbowRelease date: July 21, 2023
San Francisco quartet Oxbow must be one of the longest-serving ‘part-time’ bands on North America’s art and noise rock scenes at this point. After releasing the often intensely personal opening triptych of albums, Fuckfest (1989), King of the Jews (1991), and Let Me Be a Woman (1995), all of which alternated between avant-garde and riff-dominated musical styles, they shifted to a preponderance of guitar-driven songs on Serenade in Red (1996). An Evil Heat (2002) and The Narcotic Story (2007) told the stories of characters who were dealing with sex and drug addictions respectively.
Oxbow’s seventh full-length album, Thin Black Duke (2017), documented its title character’s struggles to maintain power amid the unravelling of his ego (in both the Freudian and non-Freudian senses of that word) and mental health. Lead vocalist and lyric-writer Eugene S Robinson says Oxbow’s first seven albums constitute a series, and their eighth LP, Love’s Holiday, represents the beginning of a new stage in the band’s discography. In a press release announcing the album, the band say that love has been an implicit or tacit theme throughout much of their recorded output to date, but Love’s Holiday is the first Oxbow album to explicitly address love as its overarching theme.
The opening songs, the singles ‘Dead Ahead’ and ‘Icy White & Crystalline’, make for a very strong coupling of tracks, with guitarist and music-writer Niko Wenner’s superb riffing recalling his work on Serenade in Red. ‘Lovely Murk’ and ‘1000 Hours’, which feature backing vocals from Lingua Ignota and Roger Joseph Manning Jr. from Jellyfish respectively, are far more contemplative in tone. The band say the latter song is intended as a thematic cousin of ‘1000’ from Let Me Be a Woman, and whilst ‘1000’ was suicidally depressed-sounding, the mood underpinning ‘1000 Hours’ is that of a wistful, hard-won contentment.
This tone of uncertainty over whether to accept love and happiness as one’s reality continues through ‘All Gone’, as Robinson sings with a melancholic determination: “The ghost of you here … I must love without you.” Musically, the song is dominated by Wenner’s piano-playing and the choral backing vocals that soar over Robinson’s downbeat lead vocals. The backing vocals seem to offer a counterpoint to the lead ones, representing a determination to live and love again, in contrast to Robinson’s performance of the lyrics, which evokes a post-traumatic state of being.
On the mid-tempo ‘The Night the Room Started Burning’, Wenner’s muscular but melodic guitar work interlocks with the steady, solid playing of bassist Dan Adams and drummer Greg Davis to create a sinister musical backdrop for the darkly metaphorical tale Robinson weaves with his vocals. ‘Million Dollar Weekend’ is a slower song on which Robinson sleepily and wistfully sings about “drowning in love and liquor … fall[ing] down the hallway,” having previously “roll[ed] in our suicide.” The song is perhaps the album’s best encapsulation of its abiding mood of uncertain happiness that has been preceded by extreme unhappiness. Wenner does a very good job of shifting between dark and light tones on his guitar in a way that matches the similarly shifting tonality of Robinson’s vocals.
On ‘The Second Talk’, Wenner’s guitar takes on the bluesy hue it had on parts of King of the Jews, as Robinson sings a warning that “fucking is a dangerous game.” It should be stated at this point that Wenner’s playing is top-notch throughout Love’s Holiday, surpassing even the impressive work he turned in on Thin Black Duke, and ‘The Second Talk’ is just one of several songs on this album on which this tendency comes to the fore.
The lyrics of closing track ‘Gunwale’ use a metaphor of a boat sailing for their ambiguous subject matter. Despite many of the album’s preceding songs ostensibly addressing the healing power of love, Robinson closes the record by singing about how the boat’s captain “shoots himself … what will be will be.” If the boat’s journey is being used here as a metaphor for a relationship, then ‘Gunwale’ would appear to be closing an album that addresses (among other things) the healing power of love by depicting a relationship that, whilst not necessarily having ended, has certainly hit some figurative rocks. It’s a curiously downbeat conclusion to Oxbow’s least dark album and, if it is to be taken as a harbinger of their next record, suggests that the work that follows it will see the band return to more traditionally pessimistic thematic terrain.
As the above descriptions of the songs on Love Holiday should suggest, the album is consistently melancholic, whilst also remaining optimistic relative to the prevailing moods of Oxbow’s previous works. This is because whilst, to give one example, Thin Black Duke ended with its protagonist meeting “a terrible and greying end”, one gets the sense that the narrators of this album have endured (and continue to endure) traumatic circumstances. However, the power of love they have received from those close to them seems to ultimately lead to them cautiously embracing feelings of contentment and semi-happiness, despite them encountering some choppy waters at the record’s end.
When Oxbow announced the release of Love’s Holiday earlier this year, the band seemed to me to be presenting a conundrum to the listener with the title: would it deal with a holiday on which there was an abundance of love, or with an anguished feeling that love itself had taken a leave of absence from one’s life? Upon its release, the melancholic tone of lead single ‘1000 Hours’ led me to believe confidently that the latter mood was the one being portrayed on the album. However, having gotten to know the album better over the intervening period, I now realise that both states of being/thinking are being addressed; that the record is about gratefully (if uncertainly) accepting the happiness that familial and romantic love can bring, having previously felt distraught and emotionally abandoned.
On the musical side of things, the album does not represent the complete volte-face from the instrumentation on their previous works that members of Oxbow suggested it might do in pre-release interviews. The songwriting and musicianship represent a natural evolution from that displayed on the latter album and The Narcotic Story. This is no bad thing, as Oxbow’s pre-existing musical style was brilliant. It would have been a shame for it to be tampered with just for the sake of doing something different, and for inferior music to have been the end result.
The choral backing vocals and orchestral instruments are very well-arranged, Wenner does some of his best ever guitar work, Adams and Davis expertly set the pace, and Robinson’s voice functions very well as a conduit for the intriguing stories the songs are telling. Existing Oxbow fans will not be disappointed, whilst newcomers to the band will find it as accessible an entry point to their work as either of their previous two albums were. It is still too early to offer an informed opinion as to whether Love’s Holiday will ultimately stand out as one of Oxbow’s best albums, but at this stage, I wouldn’t bet against it.
Album artwork by Aaron Turner