Theo Katzman's ‘Heartbreak Hits’ won't heal your heart, but it just might help
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There’s this feeling, this sensation, that wells up in my chest when I hear a great song. It’s what I would like to believe is the purest expression of art affecting body and soul.
What’s beautiful about this is that the feeling ranges across genre. It could be a symphony or a pop song that causes this ballooning of emotion, and when it happens my body tenses, my insides turn and my core tightens. It’s a peculiar sensation of wanting to cry and desperately scream at the same time. It’s a tingling and a pressure which permeates every nerve in the body as the mind tells the heart: “This is something spectacular, but unbearably so.”
In other words, I listened to Theo Katzman’s second solo album Heartbreak Hits, and with each song I wanted to dance, shout and cry all at once. But I’ve maxed my limit on crying publicly in Espresso Royale, so the only other option is to put pen to paper to unravel the emotional wreckage inflicted by Heartbreak Hits. Because that’s what it’s about — upbeat or slow, heavy electric or light acoustic, this album unravels the intricacies of a broken heart while breaking the listener’s with every passing second.
“Hard Work,” the first song on the album, was released months ago as the premiere single, but time hasn’t diminished its rock ‘n’ roll appeal. When placed next to the other fast-paced rock songs on Hits, it mainly reassures us that Katzman, by some divine power, has perfected the rock song. “My Heart is Dead,” “As the Romans Do” and “Lost and Found” all push this sound even further, and leave us with songs to shamelessly jam to for hours without any disruption in their power and appeal. They’re pop-rock meets pure, unadulterated talent. Cringe away from that word and genre if you’d like, but when done right — as Katzman has here — it’s formidable.
But it’s an album about love and heartbreak, and despite the upbeat rhythms of “My Heart is Dead” and “Hard Work,” the lyrics reveal a different story. When layered with rock and encouraged by Katzman's unyieldingly energetic stage presence, an entire audience can find itself screaming “there’s a gaping hole in the front of my chest” while smiling wildly at the feel-good vibes. The music lingers in the love, and the lyrics revel in the loss.
Coming down from the heavy rock is the upbeat, yet more acoustically centric pieces; I place “Break Up Together” and “Crappy Love Song” in this category. They are slow and sad, adjectives which inevitably belong together, but don’t have the crushing weight of songs like “Good to Be Alone” and “Plain Jane Heroin.” “Crappy Love Song” is reminiscent of Paul McCartney's “Silly Love Song,” a song written in response to Lennon’s dismissal of Paul’s love, love, love. But it’s not in the same poppy vein as McCartney’s. It rests in sadness, while simultaneously rejecting it. He doesn’t want any more “sad, sappy love songs about two people who can’t get along”; he wants a happy one, but will settle with a crappy one. Still, his album is called Heartbreak Hits and no matter how heavy the rock is in some of its songs, many are sad and about love. Irony abounds.
This dynamic can be found in the slower songs especially. “Good to Be Alone” and “Plain Jane Heroin,” are hauntingly beautiful, their power only enhanced when placed next to the heavy rock of their surrounding contenders. They tug at the heartstrings and nostalgia of youthful love. They dig into the little details of loving and being loved, leaving no detail untouched. And to add to the genre-bending nature of Katzman’s talent, “Good to be Alone” is his self-proclaimed country song. It’s thick with situational and lyrical irony, yet horribly bittersweet. It recounts all the little details of a relationship that are lost once all ties are cut — the loneliness that assumes the space companionship once filled.
Empty spaces are a recurring theme on this album, and maybe that’s where the power, the emotional welling, can be located — in profound absence. “Plain Jane Heroin” exemplifies this the best. The final song on the album, “Plain Jane Heroin” begins slow, sincere, with Katzman on guitar, the notes echoing, untouched and floating midair. Then the drums come in and Joey Dosik enters on keys. The song builds, electric guitar introduced, and just as Katzman is forever changed, hooked on this metaphorical drug, so are we. Because that’s what music does. Whether it’s another album we can dance or cry to, or both, it inherently changes us. It introduces us to notes and stories that will stay with us far longer than our own memories do. The music, eventually, becomes a cherished memory of our own regard.
It’s art and its eternal struggle of creator versus consumer. Who gives it value? Who decides if it’s earth-shattering genius or trash? Who has the audacity to claim that a bunch of crappy love songs could change the world?
Not me, because crappy love songs have and always will be slowly but surely changing the world. They are the breakup songs and the songs that make your chest well with conflicting and indescribable emotion. They are your parents’ wedding songs gone sour — Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part of Me” with a twist. They are what remind us, at the end of a 37-minute album or four minute song, that the world will indeed keep on spinning.
Sometime between Katzman’s debut and now, the poor man had his heart broken either once or several times. And it’s difficult to empathize and pity his broken heart when this was the beautiful piece he so kindly crafted in the wake of hardship. It’s hard to feel badly, when the music makes you feel so good.