Splendid isolation: Ryan Hemsworth’s “Alone for the First Time”

by Irene Lo

Can you tell the difference between a Ryan Hemsworth lyric and a sad teenager? Trick question – there is no difference, at least not so far on this record. Alone for the First Time is Hemsworth’s sophomore follow-up to last year’s debut, Guilt Trips, and it’s clear there’s a ring of truth to his press releases, particularly in the bit when he said he would be “fighting with expectations and conventional formulas” on this venture. As a producer whose wide-ranging musical tastes results in records that lack cohesion and direction, Alone is a change in expectations because it holds together quite well. And with seven tracks to Alone, this thematic momentum isn’t too hard to keep going.

Being alone is a fantasy expressed in the vague sentiments murmured by Hemsworth and his various guest artists. Being alone, far from leading to vulnerability, is protection against it. “Hurt Me” begins with grand, symphonic strings before working itself up to a distorted feminine voice repeating, “so don’t you hurt me.” An otherwise melancholy song, the last quarter in “Hurt Me” emphasizes less on this than on a chiptune turnaround, laser beams pew-pewing all the way. “Blemish” also blends in a lighter sound in within a pensive palette, and it does this by using synths to manipulate the twang of the guitar for a softer, inquisitive touch. The happy melodic vision of chiptune is something Hemsworth has been playing with easy familiarity; “Cream Soda” featuring Japanese beatmaker Tomggg (Tatsyua Fujishiro), available as a free download on Hemsworth’s Soundcloud, is a recent example of this.

Vulnerability, and yearning for connection are common desires in “Walk Me Home” and “Snow in Newark.” In “Walk Me Home,” the New Zealand singer Lontalius says “don’t leave me alone” as much as he says “leave me alone.” “Too Long Here” is a deadpan vocal affair (“I keep to myself”), but its elegant piano keys and trap horn interruptions make it similar to the fragile bass Cashmere Cat’s known for.

With Kotomi and DOSS helping out, “Surrounded” is a chopped up track that exudes uncertainty and restlessness, and it’s emotionally stirring, more so than the songs that came before it. Feelings of loss are conveyed in such a way that they are duplicated in the listener, and this is a state with no relief in lighter elements to switch things up. It’s with the last track, “By Myself,” Hemsworth creates an illusion of impenetrability. Cloaked in cloud rap vapours, “By Myself” is a dark high of chilling sensuality and it sticks with this mood, refining and expanding the idea for a moving five minutes.

Alone for the First Time is full of neat flourishes that add a jolt of different energy into landscapes that would be emotionally uncomplicated otherwise, but what makes the record enjoyable is Hemsworth’s ability to write unified songs that add up to a gestalt whole.