I HAD A DREAM THAT YOU WERE MINE by Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam
Genre: Indie Rock
Favorites: “In a Black Out,” “The Bride’s Dad,” “The Morning Stars”
Reviewing something is usually very easy. You listen to, read, or watch something multiple times, gather your thoughts on it, and assemble those thoughts into a cohesive, funny, enlightening few paragraphs. However, sometimes reviewers have to review something that they never would have experienced otherwise for a multitude of reasons. No self-respecting movie critic would have gone to see GROWN UPS unless they are masochistic, no book critic would have read FIFTY SHADES OF GREY other than for a cheap laugh, and no one expects a metal head to give a solid review of the new Ariana Grande album. So the question then becomes how to review something in your wheelhouse that is simultaneously not in your wheelhouse.
This ran through my head when I was assigned to review I HAD A DREAM THAT YOU WERE MINE, a collaboration between two indie rock darlings. One half of the band is Hamilton Leithauser, the former lead singer of The Walkmen. They stood more on the garage rock side of the massive post-punk revival of the 2000s, with an especially vintage aesthetic and a lack of any synthesizers or keyboards unlike The Killers or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The other half is Rostam, an extremely talented multi-instrumentalist and producer who has worked with Charli XCX, Carly Rae Jepson, and even Frank Ocean, but most of you will know him for his work with Vampire Weekend. While they are more poppy and experimental than The Walkmen, they both have just as much affinity for a vintage sound for which Pitchfork will automatically give a 10 out of 10. Due to their previous bands having such similar influences, a full collaboration of Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam feels as obvious as Tim Burton directing an adaptation of ALICE IN WONDERLAND. But Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND was at once visually dazzling and as boring as watching your beard grow in the mirror, and I HAD A DREAM THAT YOU WERE MINE has a similar problem: It is instrumentally beautiful, but vocally brain-numbing.
On an instrumental level, I HAD A DREAM THAT YOU WERE MINE is impressive mostly for how dense its songs are without being overbearing or oppressive. Rostam’s obvious talent as a multi-instrumentalist is evident in his four-line credit in the record information. Most songs, like “A 1000 Times,” take cues from Baroque Pop with layers of strings, delicate pianos and harpsichords, horns, and choir-like background vocals and humming. Elements of folk and country also pop up in the tracklist in the form of banjos, acoustic guitars, and harmonica. Meanwhile, the final track “1959” sounds like I’m taking a trip with Mary Poppins thanks to its twinkly piano, somber standing bass and violins, noticeably soaring vocals from Hamilton, and a wonder-struck chorus courtesy of Angel Deradoorian.
The music is, with little exception, mixed incredibly well, with each instrument having the right punch and none of them smothering each other or the vocals. Samples disappear into the mix like Mystique in a crowd, weaving into the rest of the instrumentation perfectly. The only real instrumental problem is found on “Rough Going (I Don’t Let Up),” which has fingersnaps that sloppily mix with the drum kick and end up competing for the ear’s attention. Several tracks, such as “You Ain’t That Young Kid,” have odd tempo changes that kind of bring the songs to sudden standstills rather than gradual, satisfying decelerations, but these are minor nitpicks.
The next item on my agenda is the vocal content, which is where I HAD A DREAM THAT YOU WERE MINE falls apart. This type of lo-fi singing is always flat, but is at other times anguished and raspy in a way that grates the ears and prevents us from caring about anything Hamilton is saying. The flatness makes it seem like the singer is unaffected by whatever he is singing, and therefore we are also unaffected by it. After all, how can I be expected to care about something when the singer clearly doesn’t care about it either?
Normally, the raspy, Tom Petty-esque delivery would indicate to the listener how much the lyrics mean to Hamilton and would convey the grief-stricken tone effectively. In fact, it feels like he’s overcompensating for the lyrics not being adequate enough to convey his sadness, so he sings like hot coals are tied to his feet. Once again, it’s only uninteresting because the singer has no confidence that his stories could affect someone. Furthermore, as the title of I HAD A DREAM THAT YOU WERE MINE suggests, the lyrics often deal with heartbreak, loneliness, and unrequited love, which should be the most affecting lyrics of all.
One of the most engaging songs is “The Bride’s Dad,” which tells the story of a disheveled dad giving a less than sober tribute at his daughter’s wedding despite everyone’s glares of non-approval, until all is okay after seeing his daughter pridefully smiling at him. It’s genuinely touching, but of course it’s ruined by the gaudy, operatic transition the song takes in the second half, fit with ridiculous choir-tinged vocals that sound like they belong in a Nightwish song. Here, they ruin the song’s already imbalanced tone of hilariously pathetic and deeply somber by tipping the scales right into pathetic territory.
To be fair, the background vocals in general are inconsistent. The 60s Baroque Pop backup singers on “Rough Going (I Won’t Let Up)” add to the atmosphere effectively and impressively have the confidence and swagger to pull off “Sha-doobie sha-doobie” as the backing melody without it sounding corny or goofy. At other times, the folky humming comes across as smug and complacent, which can work in an up-tempo context, but since this album is dealing with heartbreak they end up clashing with the lyrical tone. Occasionally, they are so out of place they sound like they’re mocking Hamilton for his loneliness, as if to dance around him and taunt him for the fact that they have girlfriends, while he sits with his head in his hands crying.
Ultimately, I HAD A DREAM THAT YOU WERE MINE feels like a solid piece of graffiti you see on the side of road driving down the freeway. It’s stunning and clearly took a lot of talent and effort to create, but it doesn’t warrant anything more than a glance and an acknowledgment of how beautiful it is before moving on. The music is incredibly gorgeous, but it ultimately sets an atmosphere that requires something else to pull you in to be anything more than the auditory equivalent of eye candy. For some people, eye candy is enough, but I need something else; in this case, engaging vocals that sell me on heartbreak without coming across as histrionic or overdone.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend