It is nearly impossible to write a review of an established band without reflecting on their past, and Hawthorne Heights has one hell of a past. Breaking onto the scene with their single, “Ohio Is For Lovers”, they were seated firmly in the emo genre, featuring emotional lyrics and a sing/scream combo. They reached a high level of success between their first two albums, before a well-publicized fight with their label and the tragic death of their screamer, Casey Calvert, left the remaining members shaken. Choosing to continue without replacing Calvert, they repaired relations with their label and released the introspective Fragile Future, which took a more pop-based route, largely due to the lack of screaming vocals. After a move to a major label, the band’s new album, Skeletons, finds them exploring more territory, while retaining the same elements that are crucial to the Hawthorne Heights sound, namely the emotional, catchy choruses and lyrics that will stay in your head for days.
The lyrical content of the opening track, “Bring You Back”, instantly brings to mind Calvert’s passing (though lead singer and lyricist JT Woodruff has stated that it is actually about a friend who committed suicide a few years ago), and one may wonder if Skeletons will be entirely similar to Fragile Future in terms of subject matter. The song is very rock-oriented, leading into a slower portion that is reminiscent of similar sections in previous album openers. “Nervous Breakdown”, the album’s lead single, breaks away from the topic of death in favor of the tried and true favorite of almost any band that could be compared to Hawthorne Heights: a relationship. The song features one of the album’s best choruses, along with superb backing vocals in the first verse and catchy guitar riffs throughout.
“End Of The Underground”‘s opening is reminiscent of Fragile Future‘s “Sugar In The Engine”, and it features a catchy riff that is closest to what may have been heard on one of the band’s first two albums. The song also features a bit of screaming by guitarist Micah Carli, which calls back to the band’s early days, though it is featured to a lesser extent than in their previous work (save Fragile Future). The opening of “Drive” is exemplary of the diversity that this album presents, with its electronic elements blending effortlessly with the pop that seems to have been perfectly incorporated into every song this foursome creates. “Gravestones” (also available in acoustic form for free at the band’s PureVolume page) continues this diversity with guitar parts that would fit perfectly in a country song and a vocal melody that matches the country mood before progressing into a chorus that is trademark Hawthorne Heights.
The next two tracks, “Broken Man” and “Last Few Words”, are somewhat forgettable, outside of the catchy chorus of the former and a great key change in the latter. Following is “Abandoned Driveways”, with a danceable intro and a myriad of drug metaphors that come off as poor attempts to appear edgy. This song falls to the wayside as one of the weakest on the album.
After several initial listenings, “Picket Fences” stands out among all of the other songs on the album, though it is yet to be seen whether that impression will stick as time goes on. It opens with only simple acoustic guitar and Woodruff singing about personal failures in a way that seems as honest as anything he’s ever done before, which says a lot about this song. The instrumentation opens up as it reaches the chorus, which features bells and beautiful harmonies alongside the addition of drums. Though this song is the only one on the album to extend beyond the four minute mark, it doesn’t seem to drag on by any standards.
“Here I Am” has the pop elements that should be expected from the band, but also incorporates a few heavier elements toward the middle of the song, before playing with space between instruments and vocals near the end. Though it sounds good, it doesn’t really stand out as one of the best songs on the album. “Hollywood & Vine” is another track that falls short. Though it explores some territory not previously heard from Hawthorne Heights, the lyrics and melody of the chorus don’t quite reach the quality that the band is capable of. “Unforgivable” is trademark Hawthorne Heights, and would fit well on either of their first two releases (even if it is missing screaming). The album closes with “Boy”, which seems to be very personal and rivals “Picket Fences” as one of the best on the record. The bridge section features some interesting vocals, and introduces strings that build into an outro that takes advantage of rich instrumentation, finishing on a final piano chord that is a great ending for the album.
All things considered, this is a great release. Woodruff’s vocals and the band’s instrumentation have progressed greatly from the their first releases, allowing for the greater diversity that is present here. This is certainly not the same band that they were three albums ago, and that is not a bad thing by any means. Though there is always the “what if?” element present since Calvert’s passing, the remaining members have most certainly made the best of their situation. This is a band making all the right decisions. From individual interactions with fans to free downloads of acoustic versions of their songs, there is an earnest and heartfelt feeling to everything they do, and the music on this record is the best example of that. Almost every song has the same emotion that was present on their first records, except now that emotion is backed by life experiences, leading to an album that stands on its own as a mature expression and reflection of an imperfect life.