For an album that talks about being broken on multiple occasions, Rocky Votolato’s Hospital Handshakes has a surprisingly positive sound. With themes like recovering from trauma, dealing with mental health issues, and spirituality, you might not expect a mid-tempo indie rock album. The lyrics are practically a therapy session, but with a sense of hope about them (helped by peppy drums.) It makes sense, as this album is the result of seeking therapy. Votolato was suffering from writer’s block and self-doubt after releasing and touring for his seventh album; he went a full year without writing a song. He took time away from the road and sought therapy and soon was back to writing. To compare with his year of songlessness, after his break he wrote 25 songs in 3 months. Votolato seems to be in a better place now and the songwriting resulted in this, his eighth solo release.
Even without knowing the backstory, it’s hard to miss the themes of being broken, recovering from trauma, and thinking about spirituality. It’s clear that the titular “Boxcutter” is not a sharp tool but a person unpacking their boxed-up traumas. “Hospital Handshakes” tackles therapy when he asks “Is this an exercise or an exorcism?” and notes that he’s a “patient with no patience.” As if we didn’t have enough hints that things are dysfunctional, he sings “I wish I was a Tenenbaum, I think maybe I was” on “Royal.” Well, at least Eli Cash would understand him. “Hereafter” puts things into perspective when Votolato gets philosophical and says “I’m not so sure what matters so much here will matter at all in the hereafter.” He also gets confessional about being too hard on himself. Continuing with the spirituality theme, “White-Knuckle” talks of facing temptations in the desert. It’s not all biblical references, he pulls Greek mythology into “Sawdust & Shavings” when he warns Andromeda that the sea is restless tonight. Andromeda needs no warning, she was chained to a rock in the sea as a sacrifice to a sea monster because her mom pissed off Poseidon. Trust me, she can see the sea conditions. Votolato goes on to ask “why does this love and madness look so much alike?” The song ends suddenly when Votolato sings “I lost the thread of the story I was telling,” as if the lyrics were all part of a stream-of-consciousness tale that linked proverb-like advice and a plea for love, tied together with mythology for a chorus.
The band on this album is made up of other Seattle-based musicians, including Votolato’s brother Cody on electric guitar. Chris Walla, the former guitarist and producer for Death Cab for Cutie, produced the album. There’s an upbeat sound to most of the album, “Boxcutter” opens the record with a strong beat and sparse keys sprinkled throughout. “Hereafter” is quick and positive. It is the one track to include female backing vocals, which are used to reassure that everything is “gonna get better.” “Royal” has that frantic guitar that always reminds me of “Munich” by Editors, keeping this ode to the Tenenbaums dark and echo-y. “Hospital Handshakes” has dark, piano-driven verses, but picks up with electric guitar on the choruses. “Sawdust & Shavings” is a beautiful, slow track that would fit in with the last scene of a season finale of The Walking Dead (remember Wye Oak’s “Civilian” that one season? Haunting.) The warm acoustic guitar takes center stage over sparse-yet-strong percussion and soft background vocals.
Though there are some not-so memorable songs of the 11 tracks on here (some, like “So Unexpected” made me think of the soft rock station that plays in nearly every office,) but the memorable songs are wonderful. With deep lyrics and simple-but-effective construction, these songs will stick with you. If this album and its lyrics aren’t personal enough for you, Votolato is currently on an uber-intimate living room tour. At first I thought ‘living room’ was the name of the tour, but each venue is actually someone’s living room. Rocky Votolato is letting you into his head, his heart, and someone else’s living room, and you should probably take him up on the invitation.