TRACK BY TRACK: THE YEAR YOU’LL NEVER GET BACK BY PAPER ANTHEM
Paper Anthem is the musical vehicle of Fayetteville, Arkansas singer, musician and songwriter Joseph Hitchcock. You may recall me enthusing about Paper Anthem’s third album, The Year You’ll Never Get Back, when it was unleashed in April. While the title suggests a product of pandemic, the record in fact has a much longer timeline with most songs dating from 2016 around a time Hitchcock confesses to have experienced particular personal and emotional pressures. I consider this album to be among the very best we’ve heard this year. The care and attention Hitchcock has bestowed on the recordings really shines through; musically expansive in their cinematic sweep yet mostly retaining a real intimacy.
Beginning with the puzzle of “Sign Language” and ending aptly with “Clarity”, the album is a considered, holistic body of work tackling some destructive themes through which the songwriter emerges with a measured self-awareness. All in all, it is a personal journey that I am sure others will relate to, especially in the challenging times we are experiencing. I am delighted that Joseph took time to give us an exclusive commentary on aspects of the individual songs that I hope you find a great companion to an exceptional record.
Photo above by Kelsey Graham
“This song opens the album, and begins with a distorted drum intro that was inspired by Snake Oil by Foals. The song is about being in love with someone until one day you just wake up and realize that they're not good for you and are holding you back, which I guess sounds terrible, but it's important to make sure you're around the right people, I think, to grow. The song went through a lot of versions with different lead guitar parts before settling on what it ended up with. One of them was very indie, playful in a lighter way, which I liked but the guitarist who came up with it didn't work out and it didn't feel right to keep it afterwards.”
"I wrote this one in an office space I was sleeping in for a month, which definitely wasn't allowed, but, oh well. It ended up being the most creative period of songwriting in my whole life because the room itself was so empty and horrible, and there was no internet, so my brain kept coming up with stuff to keep me happy. A very loop-based song, that I demoed in Audacity while playing with guitar pedal effects for the first time. This was the first year I was accepting being my own lead guitarist after many years of trying to find someone else to do it, and I felt like I was figuring it out for myself. Thinking about “Receipt” makes me feel confidence."
"A merging of two styles, this new exploration of pop I was doing, and the usual alternative rock thing. I was trying to get out of my head during a difficult time and tell a story taking place in an apartment building during, and after, the apocalypse. There are three characters. One is me, another is a friend of mine, and the third is a girl we were both interested in, who was a bit twisted and really put our friendship through the wringer. The song itself was recorded four times, which was frustrating, but worth it. It bounced back and forth between two producers and studios, as I started it with Chris Daddio in Oakland, who I usually track rock music with, but took it to Fraser McCulloch in L.A. for a day to explore it as a pop song instead, and then back in Oakland, Chris and I pieced the two styles together and I'm really proud of how it turned out."
"This one is the first song I may have ever written, or close to it. It was also originally the album opener—it was going to start electronic, and then transition straight into “Sign Language” from there, but I guess I prefer starting albums with a bang and Sign Language felt like a stronger start at the time. The song itself is about being a shy or insecure person in a society where women expect men to make the first move, and it's inspired by situations I've been in where I didn't realize until later that a date wanted me to kiss them, which I find very frustrating, as I used to really not be able to tell if someone liked me or not. I waited a long time to record Mistakes, as I always knew I wanted it to be electronic, but I didn't know how to do that yet, as I wrote it on a piano in a time when all of my songs were written on a piano. In 2018 I was able to finally make it with a producer whose work I was very fond of, Fraser McCulloch, and record it in the rehearsal space of one of my favourite bands, Chaos Chaos."
"This song is about complete self-hatred, which is obviously a sensitive subject, but I wanted to make it light by using a major key and incorporating various instrumental elements that sounded funny, in a campy way, kind of like a horror movie. I wrote it in 2016 at a point where I was feeling very low, and then recorded it in Oakland in 2017 with my usual producer, Chris Daddio at Donut Time Audio. The guitar solo was written by me, but I wasn't able to play it because I was in Arkansas at the time, so there was this interesting experience where I recorded it on acoustic guitar and Chris would replicate it and send it back to me, and I'd make requests until it felt like how I would play it."
Photo by Jason Alderman
"This one came together fully formed from the outset—well, except for the outro. The first demo actually had a little gap and, instead of a relaxed guitar solo, it suddenly blasted into this big power pop rock track, which I really liked but not the right place for it. I think that's a different song that will show up on a later release. So, I added the final outro and then recorded it the same way as best I could when I got to California. As for the songwriting, it's not really about anything in particular, just feeling lost. The visual imagery is stuff I had in my head at the time, some of it connecting to other songs, like a theatre (which will be seen in the eventual video for “Dreamweaver” and a future song called “Circular Thinking”, and the city, referenced in “Clarity”."
"This one was a lot of fun to make, and the first song I recorded live. The drummer on this one, Tony Sales, played the drums for the outro live with me as I did the riff at the end. I hope to be able to record more stuff live in the future as I think it makes things feel more alive. After we did it, Chris told me it was the most metal thing ever recorded at his studio, which I was really proud of since he records a lot of garage and indie bands and I wouldn't have expected to make the heaviest thing there. The lyrics discuss a lot of things, among them wealth disparity and its effect on the justice system and immigration, and the way my Cherokee ancestors were treated by the U.S. government. I know my song won't change anything, but it feels nice to talk about these things, especially after most of my songs being about relationships."
"This song is one of my favourites I've ever written, and the go-to one I start playing whenever I pick up an acoustic. This was originally going to be just acoustic and vocals, nothing else, in the vein of "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" and things like that, the mid-album stripped down moment, but it just turned into more, especially when Keegan Leonberg of Clay Bed Submersible got hold of it. I met him in Portland, Oregon in 2017/18 and he agreed to add stuff to some of my songs and I'm so grateful for it. He added the synthesizer textures that create the world of the track."
"This is my favourite Paper Anthem song. I wrote it about being ghosted by someone I was very fond of, but the lyrics are very cryptic and mythological. My emotions felt so unbearably huge and making the song the same way only felt right to me. I wanted to make an experience that felt religious, and spiritual. I remember sitting at the piano as the piano parts and vocal melodies just spilled out of me, and just thinking 'this sounds really special' and I guess others feel the same way, so far, because it has four times the Genius lyric page views of any other song on the album, even though I haven't promoted this song as a single at all. I hope I get to make a video for this one, as I see so much imagery in my head when I listen to it."
Photo by Pamela Pavlova
"This song is really special to me. It almost never existed, as I only wrote it because I was invited onto a radio show that was themed, and the theme was 'Sleep,' so I wrote it in a week for this live show where I only had one take and it was going straight to radio afterwards so I was very nervous but it went well. I imagined a story where two lovers can't be together in the real world, but through a subconscious, psychic connection in their sleep, they can communicate and co-exist. Recording it was so exciting, I love hearing Chris play bass and acoustic guitar on my songs, that's when it really, truly comes together."
"Clarity is a final statement to close the album, confirming that I've learned something from these experiences, but at what cost? I wanted to create this early morning, just-before-dawn kind of feeling. It's actually a visualization of a real moment, with the person who inspired “Within Walls”, where I was just sitting there on the porch with her as she chain-smoked cheap cigarettes and threw them all on my lawn without a care in the world, and I still liked her anyway, despite everything. In the song, though, I realize I have to let this all go. The lyrics glide across time and space, I imagine the grid of a city, satellites and spaceships, and then return to the visual of rolling someone else's rotten heart as far away from me as I can. The song is also a new beginning, just with a little bit less light left inside you."
The Year You’ll Never Get Back is out now, available to stream, digitally download or physically own on CD or vinyl. Find it HERE.