Of all the genres, spoken word has to be the most overtly vulnerable. It shares the genes of melancholy and emo and the dramatic atmosphere of ambient rock. But lyrically, it most reflects the similarity of it’s brother: hip-hop. Striking somewhere between Anis Mojgani and Brand New is a master of verses and bleeding heart poet. In this case, that heart belongs to Cam Smith of Hotel Books, who has released a purgative and pleasantly dramatic new album, Equivalency. In all its emotional disclosure, it’s a well-trimmed collection so captivating it’s impossible to abandon, because, like all good stories, one must know how it ends.
Equivalency is truly is a story, from the opening words of a lonely muse to the ending voiced by a Siri-like robot, telling of why love dies. As the story unfolds, a memorable record is born. Intermixed with an ailing relationship, Smith also unfurls his experience in fame and success, grieving the precious price he paid to get there. In that personal introduction, (a track called “From Porterville”) his voice picks up passion, gaining traction in a steady and direct style reminiscent of Aesop Rock. It’s a great tone to set, and throughout the duration of all ten tracks, the momentum continues.
As the story moves along, Smith narrates a cavalcade of emotions that often wander between life, love, and purpose. He wrestles with his choices and still finds plenty of time to be thankful. Although much of what weighs on him is relational regret, he also has moments where he questions the success he’s earned. “We just hoped our rebellion would look like rebellion rather than what it is,” Smith says in “I Knew Better, But Did Nothing,” “a target for millennials to put their faith in.”
The contemplation of Hotel Books’ mission ruminates throughout this track, which could be considered the mission statement of the album. Adding to the words that chronicle the band’s career are the gentle elements of hand-drumming and acoustic guitar, creating a strong sense of nostalgia. Because the majority of the album is anchored on a spectrum of pop-punk to darker emo stylings, the track was an enjoyable anomaly.
In all its emotional disclosure, it’s a well-trimmed collection so captivating it’s impossible to abandon, because, like all good stories, one must know how it ends.
True to the style of spoken word is the fact that nearly every song on this album is quotable for its creativity. Among the most poetic of Hotel Books tracks on this album are statements from a brazen perspective, showcasing Smith’s penchant for transparency. Phrases like “I learned to love Jesus before I learned to love myself,” lose their shock factor, and, instead, are replaced with an understanding that conventional expectations don’t automatically create healthy people. It plants the seed of wonder that maybe everyone has to meet themselves, God, and their life’s journey in their own time and fashion. Perhaps one of the truest and most fundamentally relatable lines Smith sings is from the song “Van Nuys” as he admits, “I know that there’s blood on my hands if there’s hate in my heart.”
Not surprisingly, Equivalency is concluded with forethought. As “Where I Am” and “I’m Almost Happy Here” seal the wounds of love lost and the struggle of starting over, one song remains. As only seems fitting, the robotic voice returns with a fast forward into the future, a reading of Smith and the muse co-existing in a world where they are now strangers living with the knowledge of the life they once shared. With a reference to the dark track “Violent Smile,” it was strange and poetic, which should be expected from an album with such heart. Smith himself said it best: “It’s funny how artistic we get when our hearts are broken.”