Album Review: Hazel English – Wake UP!

Wake Up 1

If the essence of pop is its disposability, what happens if you feel that the same applies somehow to you?

Hazel English – Australian born, Los Angeles resident – spent much of her adolescence writing poetry before becoming intrigued with the ideas contained in Guy Debord’s Situationist bible The Society of The Spectacle, which theorises that popular cultural tokens – sport, movies, art – are all placed in front of us as some vast distraction from the things that really count.

Translating this without irony into a medium like pop is something that requires either great finesse or a revolutionary’s flair for the polemical, but Wake UP! is a more personal journey, the title a note to self about having to constantly jolt the spirit out of the disorientating 24-hour-everything cycle.

Helping her turn these visions into reality were production gurus Justin Raisen (Sky Ferreira, Charli XCX, Angel Olsen), while English flew to Atlanta to work with Ben H. Allen (Deerhunter, M.I.A, Animal Collective), but to the singer’s credit there’s no discernible contrast between material, the whole album bathed in shades of wistful dream pop and sixties bubble-gum.

Part of Wake Up!’s beguiling character lies in a reluctance to preach: Shaking, for instance, sounds like a lost Bangles tune but in lyrically tackling themes of power, lust, manipulation and control, the singer claims it, ‘presents the promise of a spiritual awakening as a kind of seduction’. Taking things at face value this is not.

Purists, of course, will argue that this is an avenue of entertainment which by design has a duty to reject over-thought and keep people dancing; for some, trying to give everything meaning is not the mission here. English, however, cleverly offers disguise by creating attractive, 20th century leaning music which allows her messages to filter benignly. Mid-record everything – sequencing, harmonies, choruses so big you can hear them from space – fall into place spectacularly, from the title-track’s gorgeous keyboard highs to Combat’s dreamy vision of a disjointed relationship and Five And Dime’s lovely, Fleetwood-Mac-in-a-haze simplicity.

There are a number of wrong turns which could’ve been taken here, one being a slave to the lofty conceptual backdrop, which is avoided, another in allowing levels to slip for a moment, as happens on Milk And Honey. The majestic peak, however, far outweighs any trivial problems; Like A Drug bottles up everything you ever were afraid of when you realised for the first time that you loved anything, and also the immediate chest crushing fear of then losing it.

So is Wake UP! in or out? Is it part of the spectacle or some kind of infiltrator? Propaganda from the other side? The answer, of course, is that you get to decide, to aurally unbox it, to make it be what you want it to be.

In realising this is the only truth, Hazel English has made herself the very opposite of disposable.

8/10

Andy Peterson

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