by Glennon Curran
Yazan’s upbringing gives his music a certain depth of perspective. The son of Palestinian immigrants, he was raised in the high rises of NYC, but exposed to the irrationality of privilege and poverty through childhood visits to slums in foreign countries. These experiences seem to have set the stage for a life-long awareness of the dualities plaguing humanity, and the troublesome cultural attempts to normalize them as part of our nature. In response, it would seem Yazan has adopted the modus operandi of many radical traditions: a fundamental state of rebellion paired with a near-religious faith in the potential of human goodness. These perspectives inform the lyrical content on Hahaha, which listens like the journey of someone attempting to reconcile things whose potential for reconciliation remains unknown.
Hahaha might be the message on the flickering neon sign at the entrance of a person’s—or by extrapolation, a society’s—dark centers of internal conflict. If standout barn-burners like “The Star” and “When I’m Gone” are any indication, this secret location might materialize as a sweaty cosmopolitan roadhouse packed with a mass of humanity. The actualization of negative potential on individual and social levels is something that informs the background assumptions about the state of human well-being in Yazan’s worldview. But he also refuses to bend to the pessimistic determinism that keeps people from changing destructive habits. In the album’s optimistic moments, utopian possibilities challenge the weight of reality through clever musings like “it’s easier to be kind” and “to love yourself is to love everyone, even criminals, they’re people too.” The lyrical content has the trajectory of radical traditions in philosophy: the recognition of humanity’s deep seeded flaws, the transformative possibility of human potential, and the imperative to live this finite life ethically and with passion right now. It beckons listeners to be the change they want to see by reckoning with their demons; as Yazan states in "Forgiveness Begins": “forgiveness begins with me.” But the album doesn’t tell the listener to be better, it manifests that message because its creation is the result of a person undertaking that self-reflective process on a deeply existential level. You get the feeling that Yazan stared into the abyss within himself through the process of creating this album. And that feeling gives the album a kind of inexplicable vitality you might try to capture with words like “soul,” “essence” or “being.” Perhaps the only escape from the traps of duality is brutally honest self-assessment and the constant striving to be a better person; even if that escape is only temporary. On Hahaha Yazan attempts to reconcile through song, and a whole lot of awesome guitar.
Each song combines different influences— delta blues, classic rock, folk, soul, indie rock, hard rock, rock ’n’ roll—but the record as a whole maintains continuity with its complexity of arrangement. Yazan’s technically sophisticated guitar playing is effortless. Each track has layers of guitar—sometimes many—resulting in lush and quick moving progressions that Yazan details with exquisite lead melodies by way of his voice or guitar lead lines (or both). It is clear that the guitar is Yazan’s entry-point point into music and has become an indispensable organ of his creative self-expression. The detail in the whirring of guitars is matched by the drumming of Yazan’s reoccurring collaborator, Kris Kuss (Pile). Kuss’ signature style—a bouncing, behind-the-beat tumble—drives steady and thumping like a tractor through each song, holding down the center line as a possessed Yazan paints loosely with his guitar and voice.
The album opens with the breezy positivity of the self-titled “Hahaha,” where intricate arpeggios underwrite soulful vocals for a contemplative listen reminiscent of something from Jeff Buckley’s Grace. In fact, Jeff Buckley is a strong point of reference for both the guitar and vocal stylings of Yazan. The vocal vibratos reach fever pitch in the swelling peaks of “Cockroach,” where hard-rock motifs make their initial entrance (and both Yazan and Kuss channel a little bit of Soundgarden). The sludge is turned up to eleven in “The Star,” where doom meets blues for a guitar fueled cosmic adventure in the midnight hour. As if awakening from the darkness, Side-A is rounded out by the toybox pop of “Forgiveness Beings”—a pristine proclamation of some of the album’s deepest ideas.
Side-B is kicked off by a pair of charmingly straight-forward tunes (“When I’m Gone” and “Penetrate my Mind”) centered on sweet vocal hooks that float through the circularity of Yazan’s guitar. “Tiger” follows up with an almost dirge-like ballad whose intriguing lyrics utilize the language of hunting to mask a deep reflection on eroticism and relationships. Soulful guitar licks swell just enough to catch you off guard before they end. The penultimate “Do You Wanna Go?” is a torching blues romp that finds Yazan trading squealing falsettos with squealing guitar solos. The album ends with “Ghost Blues,” a stark track that has flickers of Johnny Cash in its nakedness. Talking vocals and finger picked acoustic guitar are a desert before they build into a short-lived crescendo that ends with the hum of bugs in a field.
In the end, the album title, Hahaha, might mean a lot of things: the guffaw of joy, the self-effacing laugh of human fragility, the cynical cackling of our more troubling nature. Yazan’s music holds a flame to all of it, and illuminates the duality of our dark recesses and better potentials in an effort to gain some kind of foot-hold against them. It’s insightful, original, and musically versatile, and if you don’t get it, the joke is on you.