by Alberto Calderon
As is often the case, Hannah Cohen had her moment of clarity while in the bathroom. She had retreated to the bathroom of her cramped New York apartment, so as not to wake her partner while she worked on a song, and then it occurred to her: she had to get the hell out of the city. The thrill of busy streets and people stacked on top of each other to the heavens, now felt claustrophobic. The tension and angst before the big move helped fuel Cohen’s third album, aptly titled Welcome Home. It’s been four years since Cohen released her second album, Pleasure Boy, which had a much denser synth pop sound and a more rebellious attitude. Welcome Home is decluttered and meditative, allowing Cohen’s strength to be showcased, which is her impossibly high pristine vocals.
The album is ultimately about the transitions we choose as we confront the passing of time. “This is your life, don’t let it just happen to you” are the first two lines on the opening track, “This Is Your Life.” Cohen’s angelic voice floats over a snappy snare drum and a wavy layered synth. Although Cohen’s voice stands above every other sonic element on the album, the minimalist compositions that support her are very tastefully done and their always seems to be a well placed instrumental accent that enters the song around the midway point to keep the tracks from sagging.
On Pleasure Boy, much of the album was about obtaining what she craved, whether it was seducing someone else’s boyfriend or soaking up the vibrancy of the big city. Four years later she seems to be in a markedly different phase of her life. On “What’s This All About”, a melancholic bare bones track that features only her voice and a tenderly played piano, she sings, “What’s this all for?/ Tell me what you want/ Cause I don’t know anymore.” Now that she has achieved much of what she set out to do when she left San Francisco and headed to New York as a teenager she seems unsure of what’s next. She mulls moving to the country but concedes that, “I still need that rush/ Gotta feel the blood/ Pulsing through my body/ Late night walks to the deli.” Cohen is a surprisingly good lyricist who has a keen ability to be effortlessly evocative and playful. Her lyrics are simple but never trite.
Even in the love songs Cohen seems unable to give in to the uncertainty of love, always looking ahead and wondering where it is going. In “Get In Line” she gives her lover an ultimatum, “Either let me in or let me out.” And in “Wasting My Time,” she wonders what it would take to cut her partner loose, “Do I wait for a sign?/ Cause I gotta learn the difference/ Is it love or are you wasting my time?” Both “Get In Line” and “Wasting My Time” are stand out tracks. The jazzier compositions encouraged Cohen to sing with interesting syncopations and to vary her pitch more than she normally does. Cohen often starts songs in a very high register and stays at that register throughout, and who could blame her. Her ability to sing at a high pitch as cleanly and powerfully as she does is unparalleled and clearly her defining musical attribute. Upon first hearing her voice, it is astonishing but as one track bleeds into another the effect can wane as it becomes a new normal for the listener. It was nice to see her embrace different vocal approaches.
Moving inspires a mix of emotions like the nostalgia of what was and the excitement of the unknown. This rich complexity is is very present on Welcome Home. On “What’s This All About” Cohen sings, “Gotta make it work/ Or we can move to the country.” Ultimately she decided to move to Woodstock. Most of the album was made as she was still in New York plotting her exit which is perhaps why there is a beautiful restlessness that permeates the album. I look forward to seeing what her new life in Woodstock inspires musically.