The 'Heartbreak Hotel' EP by Hannah WoofReview
In my last review for Hannah Woof, I dubbed her current single "Rendezvous" her best work, and I can't be shaken from forming that opinion. The final pay off couplet alone is one of the coolest (in every sense) stilettos ever wielded in lyrical history.
However, as I reported from Art in the Park, backstage (ok behind the lorry), Hannah raised the bar for me, stating that the title track of her new EP, "Heartbreak Hotel" went further. A bold assertion, but here we are and it's time to test that as the release is imminent (August 25th in fact).
"Rendezvous" is on there too, throwing down the gauntlet to any other song & along with that title song, we also have a live version of "Over You" and "Rather Be Lonely".
Naturally, Hannah did not make that claim lightly and knew the evidence she had to back it up would come out. In fact she sent me the proof a couple of weeks before release & I'm glad she did as I needed plenty of time to get my words to my satisfaction.
Hannah has form with paradigm shifts in her music before: she did it back in 2019 with "Sweet Talk" which moved the goalposts onto a different pitch & set the landscape for singles such as "Remedy", "Self Care" and "My Phone", not to mention her collaboration with Jake Rizzo, "Obvious".
She's only gone and done it again with "Heartbreak Hotel" hasn't she?
What I really liked about "Rendezvous" was that it was uber-Hannah Woof: a perfection of the acerbic, witty, no nonsense songs pioneered right from her debut album ‘Sleepless Nights' in 2017: the sort of material which attracted me to her music from the start.
Therefore I admit to a personal investment in that side of her creativity. I also dread writing about an artist who has just shifted up a gear as it can imply that her previous work is, in contrast, somehow inferior: which is not respectful & if I've praised it as much as I have Hannah's earlier work, leaves me looking foolish. So as far as I'm concerned, I'd wish you to understand that any praise of "Heartbreak Hotel" is not at the expense of "Rendezvous" nor any other of her songs.
I suppose as I take the plunge into trying to justify why it's so special, that as you won't have heard it yet, "Heartbreak Hotel" is not a cover of the 1956 Elvis Presley song, though I suppose in very general terms, the underlying metaphor is shared.
In fact Hannah's first innovation in the song may be to take the metaphor much farther than in that other song: it actually is presented as a narrative to an actual hotel would be: certainly her first foray into such detailed story telling in this style & the extremity of the approach is itself one of the key features on the song.
Internal metaphor follows internal metaphor, bejewelled with witticisms (I love her feeling that her level of heartbreak ought to entitle her to a loyalty card or equivalent) and passing observations of the plights of her fellow guests.
Musically, Hannah started off with a very stark set of arrangements: her guitar playing very much so & her piano style even more so. "Sweet Talk" was a big step up in terms of fuller arrangements as well as more obviously contemporary ones (though I still shiver at those timeless, early ones). The first impression "Heartbreak Hotel" may have on you is that it "sounds different" to Hannah's previous work: and I'd not argue with you on that point. Defining precisely what has changed though is more tricky, given the subtly of the evolution: it may be an accumulation of small things rather than one big in your face one.
Some aspects of her craft remain present, correct & in fine form. For example her mastery of internal rhymes & assonance, and her deployment of a wide vocabulary, some of which is seldom heard in a song (we get "exudes" and "sniggers" within the first 16 seconds) and as I say, the wit just gets better & better. This next bit is actually being written on the fourth day after hearing the track which tells you how long I've wrestled with the best way to tell you about it, but I eventually had a small epiphany which helped me somewhat.
I certainly felt that Hannah had retained some of the timelessness she'd had, but expressed this in a much fuller arrangement, replete with nuanced details than in her earliest days, yet despite the elements of contemporary sound, she had only gone a tasteful distance down that particular road: to go further might gain kudos today, but can lead to artists sounding dated in years to come.
No, my "lightbulb moment" eventually came when I realised that the general approach she was adopting reminded me of the work of Kirsty MacColl: particularly her later material: though one specific song, but this way of putting together complex arrangements with beautiful detailing which add to the quality of the song (and draw you into repeated listening to pick up on) without distracting from the lyrics. Classic, orchestrated pop which is not era-constrained but doesn't sound retro either. That both artists are witty, feisty writers probably reinforced the sense of connection too.
Having rabbited on about "Rendezvous" and "Heartbreak Hotel", I mustn't leave you forgetting that this is an EP & there are two other tracks: "Over You (Live)" and "Rather Be Lonely".
The former, as you might imagine, reverts to the stripped back sound Hannah Woof fans will be familiar with, though the latter isn't that much more complex in arrangement: it sits comfortably with the sound of that run of singles post "Sweet Talk". Both sit well with the title track: you might almost say that if the EP told one continuous narrative, then these two might evidence the sequence of events which led her to check in at the eponymous establishment.
This is the rawer, heartbreaky side of Hannah with elements of the "fight back" narrative so important to her work: the sudden "fuck" in the latter wakes you up & makes you realise that she won't be taking anything lying down & leads on emotionally to "Rendezvous" which follows it on the EP. However the story behind "Over You" is interesting: as I say, it fits neatly into the structure of the set, yet what it offers in terms of uniqueness within it is because she wrote it back when she was seventeen & once you know that, you can discern her writing & recording style of those days in it: yet she had the nous to recognise how well it fits into the arc of the ‘Heartbreak Hotel' story: this is a very thoughtful artist after all.
You might also therefore choose to view the set as a snapshot of the evolution of her compositional approach: "Over You" encapsulates Phase One, "Rather Be Lonely" Phase Two, "Rendezvous" the zenith of her writing to date & then "Heartbreak Hotel" opens Phase Three.
That there is both that development evidenced yet certain aspects remain & evolve in tandem with the musical movement (the general growth of her love of word play from the very stark & confessional "Over You" to the cascading quippage of the contemporary compositions is vivid).
‘Heartbreak Hotel' is another magnificent milestone in the career of a magnificent artist: Wembley here she comes.