Album Review: Hazel English – Wake UP!

[Polyvinyl/Marathon Artists; 2020]

Hazel English deserves it all. Her 2017 double EP Just Give In / Never Going Home bypassed the heavy nostalgia dependence of many similar-styled acts by way of sheer vulnerability and emotive truth. To call her music relatable is just about the greatest understatement this writer is capable of. With Wake UP!, her first proper album, she’s poised to seize the level of attention her prior work bizarrely seemed to miss out on. Her brand of dreamy indie rock (or rocky dream pop, take your pick) is layered and immediate all at once.

Whereas Just Give In / Never Going Home often felt homegrown, even veering into bedroom rock (if not pop), Wake UP! boasts a radio-ready sheen. It’s no wonder, with half the record produced by Justin Raisen, the man behind the boards of some of Charli XCX, Angel Olsen, and Sky Ferreira’s best work. She’s opted for a distinctly different voice for the album’s remainder, hooking up with Ben H. Allen (Animal Collective, Deerhunter). Following on from the double EP, it seems English clearly appreciates duality within a cohesive body of work

In many ways, Wake UP! seems to find Hazel English in a more comfortable place, with much of the resignation and fear of her prior work usurped by an even more jangly, catchy lyricism. Songs such as the title track bear some resemblance to the likes of peak Best Coast.

Not to judge an album by its cover, but the artworks for her two album-length releases are telling: whereas her compilation found her looking pensive, partly shrouded by foliage, Wake UP! Finds her front-and-center boasting a fashionable, confident presence. Hazel English is here to claim her rightful place.

Such a sentiment is something she seems to want for all of us. In the press release, discussing the impetus for Wake UP!, English muses how many of us simply coast through life, not even fully present. It’s a thought altogether bracing and true: how often does a day pass us by only for us to think, “Wait, what did I really do today?” Especially in these days of quarantine, it’s a stark reality for many, if not all of us.

Wake UP!, then, isn’t purely a title, but a mission statement: a plea. The likes of “Combat” are enough to pull anyone out of a lull, with her gorgeous voice and blanketing lyrics blending blissfully with a musical backing so pristine that it’d make Beach House jealous. “Five and a Dime” even dares to sneak in a bit of a country tinge, seamlessly snapping in new sounds to English’s pre-existing style.

Yet, it all comes down to the album’s closer. After an album largely dealing with existential pondering and worries beneath its blissful veneer, “Work It Out” wraps things up on a note of supreme hope. After all, loving each other is hard. We’re selfish, endlessly jaded, and prone to bouts of fickle doubt. But when that connection is real, we’ll always come back together. This is a song for that moment of joyous, even desperate, reconnection.

While Just Give In / Never Going Home benefited from a nuanced lyrical approach, any sense of Hazel English’s musical tentativeness is completely gone on Wake UP!. She has carved out a broad lane all for herself here, delivering a set of songs truly demanding to be heard by a wider audience. If this album doesn’t make Hazel English a star, we’re all doing something wrong.