Back with another release from the mellowest of discographies, Zander Hawley’s newest EP, I Invented Time Travel, is his most realised offering yet while also managing to feel acutely secretive and personal.
To start off this review I want to give you some background into how I found Zander Hawley, an artist that feels like indie folk’s best-kept secret. The year is 2017 and I’ve just wept at the film Everything Everything, I go searching for any Amandla Stenberg content I can get my hands on and stumble across Honeywater, a folk duo that she was one half of, I’m hooked. Fast forward to 2019 and I’m listening to Phoebe Bridgers on repeat in my kitchen, after exhausting her own library a song called Until We Both Get Bored begins to play, merging Phoebe’s voice perfectly with a man’s voice that’s so emotive and pure I feel like I’ve heard it a million times before. Probably because I have, realising that the common denominator here is Zander Hawley, an LA-based singer-songwriter who racked up over 40 million streams and gaining critical acclaim before he even launched his solo career.
When you find Zander’s music it feels like finding an oasis. Adding a golden harmony to any song he features on is one thing, but when you dip into his solo releases it feels like falling into some kind of perfect bubble. Within his discography you hear the same names spin around from songs of love to songs of heartbreak, you revisit images and stories that seem to become familiar as if he’s sat down and told his woes to a friend. With a firm hold on what is maybe the single best quality of great folk music, Zander’s music feels personal and intimate as you get the sense that you’re hearing a genuine outpouring, these are songs his emotions and experiences have driven him to write, not lyrics he scribbled down in the corner of a studio. This feeling is amplified by the music as the track nests Zander’s lyrics, almost fading into the background as you can’t help but hone in on what he’s saying.
With the announcement of I Invented Time Travel, Zander admitted the EP was the ‘most personal thing” he’d ever made, a statement that was intriguing considering his entire back catalogue feels like his diary laid bare in its narrative glory. I’m not sure what I expected, maybe something similar to his 2017 album When I Get Blue, full of pining songs, like Ever Yours, that feel like open letters to lost love.
But what we got was something altogether more refined, personal in a whole other sense of the word. I Invented Time Travel feels covetous. Unlike the universal feelings in his previous releases, buying into the tradition of the classic folk love song, this new EP feels like a whisper, like it was made accidentally, like the result of personal experience. While his older material feels like an open door, welcoming you into this relationship that feels familiar, I Invented Time Travel is specific and intimate, as though it’s addressed to one particular person and Zander was nice enough to let us hear too. It’s a feeling that’s introduced immediately as the haunting Red Coats, a song that manages to be both moving and catchy, sees Zander singing almost timidly – an I forgive you, a pardon for some crime that’s not our business to know.
The important thing to note is that this EP isn’t timid. While holding on to the same poetic lyricism and heart-wrenching emotion, I Invented Time Travel actually sees Zander seeming to take big steps away from the boy-with-a-guitar stereotype. Keeping a grounding in folk tradition, this EP feels far more fully formed than any other releases, adding new layers of cinema with the addition of strings and higher production. The songs build to dizzy high points, feeling like the sentiments he was trying to get across in earlier releases are satisfied on this EP as the songs climax to headphone filling glory. I have to give a particular nod here to the finale of Thumbs as Zander’s already rich voice is magnified as its joined by this wall of sound and other voices, rattling guitar and an enduring beat, creating what is possibly his most fulfilled song yet, leaving you awestruck and elated as you fall down from those harmonies into the comforting acoustic intro to New Burn.
After Thumbs the EP is full of a sense that Zander’s music has come full circle. New Burn feels familiar, carrying the same sense of sincerity and nostalgia that I feel in love with on Until We Both Get Bored, but done better. The production is better, his songwriting feels more refined, following along with the ‘show don’t tell’ rule as Zander seems to give more power to his instrumentals on this EP. While the lyrics have pulled back, opting for more specific and secretive sentiments, his music is more infused than ever, leaving you with the shivers and goosebumps that every musician aspires to create.
By the time you reach Katla, featuring vocals by Abby Gundersen who’s also worked with Phoebe Bridgers alongside her brother Noah, there’s a moment of conclusion. As announced by Zander, ‘it’s the epilogue’, Katla wraps up the EP with a nice bow. While the EP overflows with emotion, there’s a feeling of summarising here, as the track joins pieces of all it’s predecessors, the specificity of Red Coats, the cinematics of Thumbs, the sincerity of New Burn. When it finishes, it’s left neatly. Unlike his debut album, you’re not left with the image of Zander laid bare, heart bleeding on his sleeve, instead, the end of I Invented Time Travel feels like a satisfied pen down, like the artist has said what he needs to say, for now.
When listening to the EP, I kept that comment in my mind about this being a deeply personal piece. I like that by the end I don’t feel like I know the ins and outs of its inspirations. This EP feels personal in a whole new way for Zander, it’s less of a window into his life but more a crack through which the feelings have leaked out, feeling like a necessary emotional release that’s been refined and meditated on like a therapeutic exercise. And the finished product is beautiful, equal parts delicate and bold, matching perfectly with the quality in Zander Hawley’s voice that hooked me in way back when.