Hemi Hemingway is the stage persona and alter ego of Shaun Blackwell (Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Kahungunu ki Heretaunga), who performs with his band The Snowflakes, and ‘Strangers Again’ is his triumphant and heart-wrenching long player release of August 2023.
The 10-song masterclass in songwriting opens with a heartbeat-like kick drum, foreshadowing themes of love, loss, and loneliness. But there’s also fun to be had with this record, each track worthy to be contemplated seriously, alone, as well as swayed to with friends or strangers…
Alone In The Morning Alley sounds like a slow, hazy oblivion as Hemingway [John The Baptist, So Laid Back Country China] thoughtfully jokes, “Pain is a good friend, don’t you know he’s a lousy lover though?” It’s the first of many deft lyrics from the Te Whanganui-a-Tara-based artist. The album’s title track, Strangers Again, begins with vocal harmonies reminiscent of The Beach Boys, accompanied by a church organ’s melodic embellishments plucked straight outta ‘Blonde On Blonde’.
The song titles alone (Green Envy, It’s So Cruel (Lovin’ You), Don’t Wanna Hurt U) talk of a bleak despair that’s reinforced by his languid vocals and a distancing production. Baroque pop does seem a good description. Midway through the album comes the unexpected and special treat of a waiata sung in te reo Māori. January Lake #3 sets in as a solemn reverie that develops into a plea championing the strength of emotional vulnerability. It’s the most heartfelt moment on the album which is saying something as this entire collection is sincere, emotive and resonant. Hemi Hemingway does his crying in the rain.
This record is a must-have for any fans of Alex Cameron, Oscar Dowling, Angel Olsen, Princess Chelsea, The Voidz, Cut Worms, Erny Belle, or Jazmine Mary, respectively. These are not just sweet tones to dig into but potentially conversations to be had about trauma, grief, and toxic relationships.
It’s like a rock’n’roll musical set in the carnival of the mind. The production style is a delicious blend of mid to late-’60s era Dylan with the cinematic sensibilities and whimsy of Kate Bush, all performed on the derelict set of Grease – though ultimately Hemi Hemingway’s style is impossible to pin down – making his sound all the more compelling.
While nods to the late lead-guitar great Robbie Robertson can be heard throughout, references to songwriting greats and rock’n’roll heroes could be endlessly found. But to do so would be to miss the point, mistaking this work for an exercise in nostalgia rather than acknowledging it as a rocking, modern exorcism of authentic passion and pain, love and confusion.