As an English professor, John Helix spends most of his days inside a classroom. However, when freed of the responsibilities of ordinary life, something extraordinary happens; Helix morphs into a song-writing, music-making, brooding, creater of a sort of quasi-pop/rock/folk music he refers to as “weltschmerz,” or “romantic sadness.” In no place is this weltschmerz on better display than in the tracks of his sophomore release, Chronic Happiness.
From the oddly upbeat opening track of the same name, “Chronic Happiness,” listeners are immediately put on notice via the repetitive lyrics, that Helix “wants to be chronically happy,” implying that he currently is not. Helix then surprisingly slows things down considerably with “Western Eschatology.” With eschatology defined as the religion focused with the end of the world or humankind, it is here that we first see hints of the late Elliott Smith’s signature melancholic influence on Helix’s style. Somber but strangely soothing, this piano heavy track was one of my favorites. Continuing the slower pace, Helix moves on to “Conceptual Whistling” and gently sings “Stop the world, I wanna get off. Don’t Leave me alone with my thoughts.” The dark, slow mood of the song is broken with only a glimpse of hope via actual whistling.
Helix rebounds from “Conceptual Whistling” with the lead off single, “I Don’t Speak Los Angelese.” As others have noted, the vibe from this song will draw immediate comparisons to the early years of The Beatles. The next few tracks spend time examining themes such as feeling out of place, being unable to trust others as well as loss and being lost. Towards the end of the release, listeners will find the track called “Nekuia.” With a low octave piano intro that relays a sense of darkness and lyrics that are somewhat difficult to discern, I assume “Nekuia” comes from a word used in Greek literature tragedies where a journey is made to the underworld to summon those who have passed for guidance as it certainly sounds like Helix is transcending worlds. The final track, “Psychotropic Dreams” is a sometimes upbeat song about being unrelateable and misunderstood where Helix is found singing words such as “Empathy is impossible, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and sympathy is only possible if you don’t mean to cry.” With sporadic periods of uptempo chord progressions that offer an “I’m moving on feel,” “Psychotropic Dreams” seems an appropriate way to end this larger work as it successfully combines the roller coaster feelings of emotion displayed throughout the earlier tracks.
Managing to find acoustic beauty in the often emotional wreckage of his lyrics, Helix produces a piece of work in Chronic Happiness that exceeds expectations. Vascillating between slight optimism and utter despair, John Helix offers a highly listenable sound alongside lyrics that express what many people have surely experienced but are probably hesitant to share in our feel good society. This kind of raw honesty from a musician is a rare commodity in today’s recording industry and Helix is bound to find a loyal following as he continues his impressive growth as an artist.
Chronic Happiness is available March 6th, 2015.