The Storyline of The Oh Hellos (Part 2/2)

With the release of Notos in 2017, The Oh Hellos set out to create a four-part series inspired by the Anemoi, the Greek gods of the four winds. Each album is named after one of the gods, and is inspired by their personalities and legends. The theme tying the four albums together is the question of “Where did my ideas come from?” These albums find The Oh Hellos examining the messy intersection of their faith and culture, the way white nationalism has bled into American Christianity, and the process of growth and sanctification. They draw heavily from the prophets of the Old Testament, echoing these prophet’s uncompromising calls for justice and repentance.The symbol of a wheel also unites the four albums. The band connects the ideas of changing winds and seasons as they ponder what it takes to break free of sinful cycles, both personally and corporately.

Notos and Eurus: Recognizing Patterns & The Beginning of Wisdom

Notos (2017) begins with “On the Mountain Tall,” which draws from the encounter the prophet Elijah has with God in 1 King 19:11-13. The song makes a comparison between all of the fearsome signs Elijah saw– the windstorm, earthquake, and fire– and the way religion is used to spark “a holy war” and sow deceit, discord, and hate. But like how God was not in those fearsome acts, but speaks to Elijah in a small voice, so does God here to the narrator: “Whisper to me words in a voice so small/Like the one that to Elijah called/Quiet as a candle and bright as the morning sun.” The chorus has the narrator reflecting on the momentous task God has called them to: “I know you want me to be afraid/I know you want me to love you.” Here we see the beginning of a motif of the album and the whole series: God as someone to be feared. He is gentle and gracious with his people (as emphasized in the two previous albums). But he does require something of us, and his justice and righteous anger should be feared by sinners. Notos sees God as a fearsome presence and the narrator struggles with anxiety towards him.  

Next is “Torches,” which goes straight into detailing this “holy war.” “Torches” evokes the imagery of a mob, and, specifically, of the tiki torches used by white nationalists in the 2017 Charlottesville protests to detail how divisive the world, and especially the Church, has become, singing “Ignorance will make brothers of us all” and how our sin and our fear of others means that “Over and over, again/We keep that old wheel turning.” The wheel here represents patterns we can’t break out of and intergenerational sins we can’t escape.

Constellations has the narrator reflect on how he has tried to interpret his experiences, but his lack of perspective has caused him to misinterpret them to be hateful towards others. He has relied so heavily on his preconceived notions that he is resistant to change, yet “Like constellations imploding in the night/Everything is turning, everything is turning/And the shapes that you drew may change beneath a different light/And everything you thought you knew will fall apart, but you’ll be alright.”

Notos” uses the imagery of a hurricane to convey the turning of ideas, power, politics, and emotions. Change is coming, and it’s scary for those who were content, but there is also the potential for a cleansing power to occur, like God restarting the Earth after the flood. If the Church has made a mess of things, God will baptize us again, and that’s something to celebrate, not fear. The album ends with “New River,” which finishes this thought, singing: Well, it’ll rain for forty days and nights, and nothing you do can slow the rising tides/But the river takes her shape from every tempest she abides/And like her, you’ll be made new again.”

Eurus (2018) begins with “O Sleeper.” The last album ended with a flood bringing about cleansing change, and this album continues this idea of God changing us and the world in sometimes scary, unpredictable ways so as to overturn our sins to restore things as they should be. The song ends with: “By God, I’ll bloody up my hands/With everything I am/To cut away the mountains I’ve made/And fill the dales below.” This is a recommitment to the work of change, of becoming vulnerable and allowing God to chip away at them until real righteousness can flow out of us and restore us to our true nature. This is a glimpse of glorification, of humans in their perfected state and Earth itself made into the New Heavens and the New Earth. “Grow” points back to Notos’s “New River” and tells of how we must sit back and allow change to happen to us: “Get your feathers ruffled/You got a lot to learn, if you’d just settle down/And let the river run its course.” 

Passerine” ends the album by bringing to the forefront what has been lurking in the background of the past two albums: critiques of the modern American church. “Passerine” muses on how the narrator’s fellow Christians have become like the dominant culture. They are compared to “centurions,” who are building the fires for “that Greco-Roman dream” (= American Dream). The narrator laments that while she thought she was following Christ, she realizes that by following these legalistic and hypocritical Christians, she “can’t shake this feeling that I was only/Pushing the spear into your side again.” The song ratchets up to a loud, anthemic chorus with the whole band sing-screaming: “When he comes a-knocking at my door/What am I to do, what am I to do, oh lord?/When the cold wind rolls in from the north/What am I to do, what am I to do, oh lord?” The sound is of overwhelming fear. Like the scariness of the flood/baptism change at the end of Notos, Eurus also ends with spiritual anxiety, a fear of God and what he’s going to do with us and our sin. It is the sound of a guilty conscience hearing the judge’s footsteps round the corner. The mention of the “cold wind” ushers in Boreas.

Boreas and Zephyrus: Humbled through Suffering into True Maturity

Boreas (2020), despite being winter-themed and about sadness and suffering, is full of tenderness, both musically and lyrically, providing relief to the fear shown in Eurus. It is scary to know that we are going to be disciplined and changed, but oh! God is good to us. The album opens with “Cold,” which introduces the winter imagery. “Cold” ends with a summary of the previous albums; the narrator says that she has relied on wealth for her security: “You paved your Hades/With precious stone/Made an hеirloom to patricians and the rich alone.” The narrator decides she’s not going to do this anymore, she’s ready to do the work of letting God change her: “Well, I’m not quite ready/To turn to bone/To petrify the shred of life/I’m holding onto.” 

Rose” is all about the Church, laying out The Oh Hellos’s loving rebuke of the modern American (white, Evangelical) church. Lines like “Your dowry, it ain’t fooling/The pyrite is showing through/It won’t buy you that empty tomb” show how the Bride of Christ has contented herself with fool’s gold rather than Christ, and how she has been promiscuous to another, a “leviathan groom” (call back to Dear Wormwood’s “Where is your Rider”). “Rose” ends on a melancholy note, saying that there is pain on our way– both the persecution Jesus promised all believers will endure, but also discipline for sin– “So lay compress to the aching/Of your body made for breaking/We’ve got a lot of breaking left to do.”

In “Boreas,” the narrator asks that the pain she is undergoing make her a better person: “Maybe then my brеath could embody/A wildfire starting/I’d sweep up the forеst floor/And my body breathe life into the corners/Be a darker soil… In the end all I hope for/Is to be a bit of warmth for you/When there’s not a lot of warmth left/To go around.” Glowing” ends the album on another bittersweet note. It acknowledges the difficulty of these winter seasons of life. But “Glowing” also promises that “It would feel like rebirth/Out of some kind of dying/To see yourself so glowing.”

Zephyrus (2020) finds the narrator in a much more secure position, now more humbled and gracious, self-aware and rooted in God’s love and goodness. The narrator has undergone the winter season and endured trials and pain, and God has used that time to turn her into someone more beautiful, giving, and free. The opening number, “Rio Grande,” tells us that the narrator has rededicated him/herself to the act from “Oh Sleeper.” In “Oh Sleeper,” the narrator sings: “I’ll bloody up my hands/With everything I am/To cut away the mountains I’ve made/And fill the dales below.” In “Rio Grande,” they sing: “Oh, maybe I’m naive for thinking/That a mountain so stubborn can move/But if I’m a mountain moving/I think maybe you can be, too.” Now the narrator is thinking of other people as well and is extending love to them.

In “Theseus,” a river goes from representing scary, abrupt change, into representing peace (which is stable but not static): “Oh, that peace like a river/Always going, but never getting.” This brings back the theme from “Grow” of change being the best place for people to be in, because that’s when we grow. They sing of this healing: “It’s gonna hurt like hell to become well/But if we set the bone straight/It’ll mend/It’ll fix/And we’ll be well.”

Zephyrus” continues the thoughts of “Boreas.” In “Boreas,” the narrator asks that she become kindling that will bring warmth to others. In “Zephyrus,” she speaks in garden-based metaphors of caretaking and love for others: “I wanna help mother up an orchard/From a seed/Up through sapling” and “Break the bonds/I’ve been holding onto/Let ‘em soften me…Till every part that I am made of/Waters deep/To the roots/Of something greener.” Soap” continues this thought, with the narrator now speaking to another character, telling them that “I think that you’re worth keeping around/I think that you’re worth holding onto…It’s gonna hurt like hell/But we’re going to be well/I’ll give you my best shot.” Personal growth is painful, but it softens you into someone that can better relate to and serve others. 

Rounds” closes the album and the total series, once again returning to the imagery of cycles and wheels. “Rounds” has the narrator realizing the cycle they have just gone through over the course of the four albums- conviction, repentance, discipline, and growth- will happen over and over and over again, but each time they will get more stable: “Round, around, a round again/Will you start where I end?/Am I still speaking?/Yeah I’m long in the wind/I’ll go on and on and on again/If my chest don’t cave in.” 

In conclusion: The Oh Hellos are good, I highly recommend listening to them! I don’t know where the band will go next. I think they could explore any of these subjects again, or they could go more in-depth into songs about suffering or examinations of the church. They could mine more from the scriptures (a concept album retelling Bible stories in song? Yes please!). Or they could move more towards glorification, imaging heaven and holiness and what we have to look forward to.

Happy Easter. He has risen indeed!

– Madeleine D.

Thank you to Genius.com for lyric annotations 

Sources and further reading: 

https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2018/01/23/oh-hellos-folk-rock-band-thats-not-afraid-address-politics-or-religion

https://www.npr.org/sections/allsongs/2017/11/15/564156775/song-premiere-the-oh-hellos-torches

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s