On Harlan’s debut album, the Memphis singer/songwriter creates the soundtrack to your summer fling: catchy, jangly riffs combined with intimate lyrics about the good and bad of love.
Driving down a tree-lined street on a golden summer day, nothing much to do, staring wistfully out the window and pretending you’re in a movie. Thinking about love, your life, getting high. This sentimental feeling is unshakable when listening to the debut self-titled album from Harlan, the Memphis-based indie project of twenty-one-year-old Harlan Hutton. Hutton is backed by several of her friends, who all perform in other Memphis bands: Gabriel Hasty, Miguel Pilcher, and Griffin Rone.
The nine songs on Harlan are sparkly, mostly upbeat romps. Hutton’s warm, sweet voice works well over the delicate instrumentals of opener “Forever Endeavor” and the lush, fuller arrangements on most of the other tracks. The fuzzy guitars and dreamy pop composition call to mind other indie bands like Alvvays and Palehound, but Harlan brings some extra funk to make her sound unique. For example, on the single “Anyways,” stuttering drums usher in a jittery, melodic guitar line before transforming into a satisfyingly noisy chorus. A standout on the album is “Sunny,” which approaches its chorus with so much rushing energy and cinematic tension that my heart rate increases every time I hear it. In one of the many deft tempo changes on the album, this explosion of sound then melts into a shimmering, lazy boil.
The second single, “Fingertips,” is a brief confection of synth and jangly guitars that leads into the final songs of the album, two low-key and thoughtful slow burns that feel like ending-credits music. Throughout Harlan, the varying musical textures, the switch from loud and upbeat to mellow and slow that occurs within songs, and the unexpected dashes of drum and synth all keep your attention and make the thirty-two minutes of the album feel even shorter. This up-and-down excitement feels like a young love affair (or adolescence itself), and those experiences are apparent in the lyrics, which Hutton often takes from her diary.
Harlan’s lyrics tell stories of gauzy rose-colored memories, confusing nights, and the urgency of falling in love. The bliss of a good relationship is often tempered by anxiety or difficulty. A prime example of these complications is the sweet but worried longing on “Sunny:” “You are sunny days/I am cold rains/I want you to hold me close/Tell me you’re not letting go,” sings Hutton. Themes of hopeful romance remain strong with “Fingertips,” which at first sounds like an adorable, straightforward love letter. But the song turns out to be a reflection on communication issues: “I can’t tell you how I feel when you’re high… Please don’t ask me how I feel when I’m high.”
The surreal magic and tension of first love is best portrayed in “My Song.” The track sounds like a live recording of someone’s thoughts while getting heartbroken: “Leaving you at 4 am/feels like a dream I’d like to end/and begin again… how could I ever forget/the way it feels to be known by someone/the way it feels to be somebody’s someone?”
Harlan sounds like a movie, like a dream, but also like an incredibly realistic and touching collection of moments from life in your early twenties. “Is everyone always a little in love with someone else?” asks Hutton, and I think the answer is yes. Or at least that’s how it feels after listening to this album.