Hem: Departure and Farewell

Looking back, it feels a tad obvious that Hem had every intention of calling it a day when they released Departure and Farewell back in 2013. From the on-the-nose title to the stories of personal turmoil and addiction circulating in the pre-release press, the Americana collective did everything it could to signal their demise short of actually saying the words. Founding member Dan Messe said as much back in 2013: “…there was a time when the album wasn’t even going to come out. The band was just over.”

Of course, with a tour to promote, the band did their best to cast the record in a positive light, but Departure and Farewell would ultimately become Hem’s swansong. As bittersweet as it might have been, Hem rewarded listeners with a stellar closing statement. Gone was that wide-eyed charm that permeated the band’s 2002 debut (Rabbit Songs), and in its place was a compelling sense of weariness–Messe (the principal songwriter) had clearly paid his dues on and off the road.

While Rabbit Songs set an impossibly high bar that subsequent albums struggled to match, Departure and Farewell bookends their career with an equally powerful statement. In fact, in terms of instrumentation, there’s little here that wouldn’t sound right at home on any of Hem’s prior releases. That’s not to say that Departure and Farewell is merely a fan-service retread. Throughout the band’s run, Messe and Co. demonstrated an uncanny ability to imbue each release with a clear and distinct identity.

To that point, it becomes clear by the album-opening title track’s first chorus that Departure and Farewell is anything but business as usual. Be it the lush, understated treatment or the reflective lyrics, the song dutifully sets the tone for much of what follows. From there, the band delivers what might be their most cohesive sonic statement. The thirteen-song affair is not only the band’s shortest album, it’s also their most lyrically focused. Songs like “The Jack Pine,” “Seven Angels,” and the awe-inspiring “Tourniquet” find Messe and Curtis mining some relatively unfamiliar depths. Gone are the face-value lullabies (except for maybe “Gently Down the Stream”), and in their place are ruminations on loss and, well, departure.

Messe and guitarist Steve Curtis might have been the compositional force behind Hem’s songs, but it’s Sally Ellyson’s timeless voice that provided the band with an identity. Departure and Farewell may very well be her final performance, but the album finds Ellyson leaving the proverbial stage at the peak of her powers, adding a much-needed sense of warmth to Messe’s pensive (and occasionally tortured) lyrics. In the hands of anyone else, “Walking Past the Graveyard, Not Breathing,” “The Tides at the Narrows,” and “Things Are Not Perfect In Our Yard” likely would’ve felt like dirges. With Ellyson at the helm, however, the songs serve as some of the album’s most upbeat moments.

And therein lies the magic of Departure and Farewell–yes, the album is painfully self-aware (just listen to “Last Call”), but there’s an undeniably celebratory streak lingering just below the surface for much of its runtime. Even the album-closing “So Long” seems to revel in the dichotomy. The gospel-tinged ballad opens with a pretty definitive declaration (“So long, so long, love, the time has come to part”), but Messe couldn’t help but inject the band’s final bow with a tinge of hope.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway here is that Hem’s final release is an apt metaphor for the band itself, as it never threatens to overstay it’s welcome. In a world where a protracted goodbye has become the norm, the thought of a band quietly calling it a day in the midst of their prime feels a bit unusual. That said, it’s been ten years (and counting) since the release of Departure and Farewell, so here’s hoping that Hem finds a way to grace us all with an encore.

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