Album Review – H. Self’s “Broken Live On”

Oh, so you’re one of these “sad songs make me happy” types, huh? Maybe you even have a T-shirt proclaiming as much you purchased from American Aquarium. Of course any true country fan must be a lover of sad songs to some extent. But if you really want to test your intestinal fortitude on some of the most sad bastard music ever released into the Universe—at least that resides on the country music side of things—this H. Self debut album might set the standard. It comprises the very essence of human suffering captured in song.

Broken Live On is certainly not for everyone, and perhaps not even for many traditional country fans. But scouring the globe on a relentless exploration for some of the most devastating sentiments ever set to song will lead you to Sweden, H. Self, and this album. You could consider him like the modern Hank Williams of Scandinavia, if Hank Williams was somehow even more of a tragic and suffering character. Fans of other gut-punching masters of depression such as John Moreland should also pay close attention, and keep reading.

Finding the beauty in a wilted flower, feeling a sense of comfort in supreme loneliness, enveloping yourself in sorrow to attain warmth, and embracing self-loathing as a coping mechanism are practices that some may find completely foreign. But for others, it’s in these moments that solace and alleviation can be acquired, and profundities can be discovered, while the happy go on frolicking through life in their perfectly ignorant bliss.

Whether it’s from nature or nurture, to people predisposed to moody dispositions, the music of H. Self is like medicine, either from the way embracing the emotional pain is a way to feel alive in a numbing world, or by offering camaraderie through the shared commiseration of sorrow, reminding you that you are not alone. In fact on this album, H. Self has a song called “It Could Be Worse” where he conveys that no matter what depravity you’re suffering through, it could always be worse. You could be him.

Bringing slow and mid-tempo arrangements to his sparse compositions, the music of H. Self is little more than rhythm and steel guitar. At the heart, these are traditional country songs as much as anything, and that is how they’re written, often delivering cutting lines and insight into the true nature of suffering, even though English is H. Self’s second language. Nothing is lost in translation here. The feelings of pain are universal.

You would never suggest that an artist such as H. Self get to work on crafting more fetching melodies, or tighten up arrangements or something. This would be to completely misunderstand this music, and insult the poetic insight. Keeping the music loose and organic is essential for what he’s attempting to do. But that’s no excuse to be sloppy, which a few cuts on Broken Live On are, fumbling the endings, or not syncing up rhythms just right. And with the amount of reverb and echo, especially on some of the vocal tracks, this sometimes obfuscates the message of the song.

But what H. Self does is so powerful in the right hands, the writing so acerbic and incisive, it really defines the very heart of sad music in the country realm, and it would feel irresponsible to not help expose this to the rest of the world. Because for some of those lost souls and long-suffering fools out there who find very little respite from the roiling emotional roller coaster ride that is life, music from a profound artist such as H. Self is the only true salve to soothe the wounds of joyless living.


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