Album Review: Hana Vu – Public Storage

[Ghostly; 2021]

At just 21 years of age, Los Angeles-based songwriter Hana Vu is already a commanding presence in her songs. Her debut LP Public Storage employs the same downtrodden, sepia-toned atmospherics of the type of identikit facilities its title describes: flickering tubular lights, cold concrete surfaces, damp air, leaking drainage pipes, the smell of dust, plaster, rust, and decaying fabrics. Not exactly the most welcoming environment to keep your precious belongings, even if it’s supposedly temporary.

It’s a place you revisit every time you have to dig your heels in and scramble for a better situation… only to end back up at the same place, having to do it all over again. “I live on the edge of the world / Where everything stops and it turns / And all living things, they fall on me / And crush me into dirt”, Vu sings with her maroon-toned lower-register voice on the ghostly, new wave-tinged waltz of “My House”. The track’s moonlit textures are reminiscent of Lower Dens’s underrated masterpiece Nootropics. There’s not a hint of being blindsided or caught up in some rude awakening: Hana Vu enunciates with the matter-of-fact fatalism of an artist at least a decade into her career. 

Though evocative, stunning, and sweeping, there’s a pragmatism anchoring Public Storage, a functionality in its outline. Vu has built her craft on her own terms, learning how to play several instruments herself with gritty, DIY-fortitude. Similar to Alex G, her music naturally bends to something amorphous when she’s reaching for a specific influence or aesthetic, creating original juxtapositions almost viscerally.

For instance, “Aubade” and “Heaven” echo the cherubic atmospherics of Kate Bush’s biggest hits, smeared and stained into a downtrodden, corrosive, decidedly earthbound state. “Gutter” borrows from more primal 90s rock, but still remains sleek and elegant even as its sonics go into fuzzed-out overdrive. Public Storage might initially seem a bit oblique with its monochromatic, solemn moods, but like a faded family photograph, there’s a lot of subtle warmth to be found if you rummage through it long enough.

“April Fool” opens the record with an elegant cut-up piano melody somewhat reminiscent of a nineties Nobuo Uematsu Final Fantasy-score, as Vu’s velvet delivery utters one of the album’s most piercing, poignant lines: “What could you say / To a man with a gun? / Could you say that I’m on my way home / And I’m already late?” It made me think of a night when I was tired and depressed and walked straight past a man who was trying to rob me at knifepoint. As I walked past, he didn’t bother to try me again, and the thought quickly occurred: did I secretly wish for him to attack me, just so I could finally feel something? It’s a heavy sentiment the apocalyptic Lars Von Trier-film Melancholia addresses with a lot of grace: how sometimes, deep melancholy can awaken an emotional clarity that allows you to handle intense situations in useful, constructive ways, because you feel dead inside anyway and don’t feel as if there’s anything left to lose. 

That type of fortitude is palpable through all the songs Vu recorded for Public Storage as well. “World’s Worst” and “Maker” acknowledge her predicament without so much festering in it. Digging deep, that blackened, emotionally-drained state can potentially start feeling like an equilibrium, a source of tranquility to start anew. On “Everybody’s Birthday” – which strikes like a Gen Z counterpart to Death Cab For Cutie’s “The New Year” – Vu plainly expresses with lethargic undertone: “Red night / Everybody knows that it’s all end times / And everyone I know is blue”.

Over the past year, individuals had to emotionally batten down the hatches in some strange unprecedented way, shutting off parts of themselves in order to power through this traumatic time. With the world spinning back into its frantic perplexity, some of us may morbidly have Stockholm Syndrome for those simple solemn lockdown nights, when things were predictable. Compartmentalizing your experiences on a day-to-day basis became second nature, and it’s a mentality to hold close until things take a turn for the worse again. I guess it feels both useful and comforting to hear an album like Public Storage right now: Hana Vu’s songs tap into that solitary spirit with calm confidence, purpose, and understatedly, a lot of toughness and heart.