The short version: ‘Harold Saul High’ is messy and unfocused, but it shows slight improvement for Koe Wetzel.
- Favorite tracks: “Ragweed,” “Forever,” “Sancho,” “The Worst Part”
- Least favorite track: “L.T.W.Y.H.M.”
- Rating: 6/10
The long version: I don’t mean to necessarily take the easy way out of a review, but not every artist is intended for critics.
Case in point, Koe Wetzel, an artist who, despite not being country, has managed to take the crown as Texas Country/Red Dirt’s leading artist, essentially blowing up overnight thanks to grassroots support at live shows. The interesting, and widely controversial, element, however, is trying to figure out the reasoning for the success beyond that. But if you’re of a sensitive state of mind, you might not want to dig too deep into that.
In a nutshell, Wetzel speaks to a specific point in everyone’s life around the very early 20s, the period where no one has anything figured out just quite yet and resorts to their vices as coping mechanisms. The thing with Wetzel is, his vices include, but are not limited to, drinking, smoking and screwing someone’s wife if the time calls for it. He’s authentic, but in a questionable way that doesn’t hold much in the way of longevity.
And if Wetzel wasn’t messy enough as an artist or an online persona, the rollout to his new album, Harold Saul High, truly sealed the deal. Reportedly inspired by the loss of his best friend and uncle to craft a fictional high school using both their names as an album concept, Harold Saul High was mostly a surprise release, and yet that hardly mattered. Again, Wetzel’s success isn’t tied to critical buzz, but rather online buzz in general, and when he’s outselling Aaron Watson, regardless of where his actual music falls, it would be irresponsible not to at least check out one of the biggest names in country music right now.
I’m not usually one to be at a loss for words for too many albums, but I truly don’t know what to make of Harold Saul High. Instrumentally, it’s technically sound, but it’s also the kind of album that feels claustrophobic, and you get the feeling these tracks would work better live because of that. Lyrically, while the album does have its moments and is a step in the right direction from Noise Complaint as far as sustaining longevity is concerned, it hardly sticks to any coherent theme and often contradicts itself. It’s mostly a decent listen, but unpacking it isn’t the easiest task.
For once, I’ll start by addressing the lyrical content, if only because you really can’t start a conversation about Wetzel without doing so. Despite the album featuring multiple skits surrounding high school antics and reportedly being addressed as a “high school album,” it hardly fits that theme at all, with the skits feeling more like wastes of time more than anything adding to the project. The lone exception may be “Ragweed,” which is just a fantastic cut in general, but also addresses the complications of a strained teenage love in a detailed way.
And actually, that speaks to Wetzel’s strength as a writer as well. No, not every one of his songs can be defended as morally just, but part of that connection he’s fostered is the specificity he brings to the table – there were a whole slew of people who could relate to going to Taco Bell at 2 a.m. in “February 28, 2016,” for example.
Also, to his credit, Wetzel does bring a heavier dosage of self-awareness to this album, even if it’s contradicted in more than one place here. Still, if he’s going to be … “eccentric” with his details, it’s nice to hear a balance. You don’t really sympathize with him on “She Can’t Stop Crying,” but there’s also a mature distinction to know when it’s time to end a toxic relationship, especially when you’re the one responsible for making it that way. And he does try to stop himself at points like on “Forever” and “The Worst Part.”
Of course, along with that honesty comes tracks like “Powerball,” which, sure, has an insanely catchy melody to it, but also casts Wetzel as a victim of depression because his girlfriend just gave him notice of an unplanned pregnancy. “Messy” doesn’t really even begin to describe some of these tracks. It’s also fairly rich and ironic to hear him casting the judgmental light on “What You Deserve.”
But then again, you can write an entire book on lyrics and themes when it comes to Wetzel, so as for the sound, again, despite Wetzel being the king of Red Dirt music at the moment, the music itself isn’t country. That’s not a mark against the album, but it does lead to interesting comparisons from country music fans who aren’t sure what to compare it to (I’ve heard everything from Weezer to Nirvana, the latter only really working if you’ve heard literally zero other grunge bands). In essence, Harold Saul High is a rock record, with meatier electric guitars and power riffs leading the way.
Yet it surprised me just how downplayed much of this album feels. I understand the need to strip everything back for tracks like “Too High To Cry” or “Nothing Left To Say,” but it creates a weird run of songs in the middle that feel oddly hollow. Maybe it’s because these tracks are missing something in the low end or they’re just too reliant on adding extra reverb in place of actual intimate warmth, but going back to an earlier point, this is the kind of album that sounds like it would play much better in a live setting.
There’s also just something about tracks like “What You Deserve” and “Make Believe” that opt for something a little heavier in the mix and yet feel very derivative in their riffs and arrangements. Again, part of finding a formula for future success for Wetzel is evolving his songwriting palette, but another part of that comes with finding a distinctive sound too.
If anything, Harold Saul High does find that right mix toward its end. “Sancho” is one of those questionable tracks that’s hard to enjoy on lyrics alone (Google “Sancho” if you’re curious), but I’ll be damned if the messier production doesn’t actually work well, giving it a bar band feel that’s dirtier, more upbeat and just plain fun in comparison to everything else on this album. And again, “Ragweed” is simply an exceptional song and possibly Wetzel’s best to date. It’s a moment where the darker tones are mixed with brighter keys and huge atmospheric textures in the guitars without actually clashing, adding an air of optimism to a track that fits the high school theme Wetzel’s going for. It doesn’t have much to do with the titular band themselves, and hell, you get the almost blatant impression that these two lovers aren’t in it for the long haul, but they manage to find temporary solace in that one fleeing connection, and it’s those little details that matter for giving the track the necessary heft it deserves.
Of course, another part of that song’s appeal is Wetzel absolutely giving it his all with that soaring chorus. As a singer, Wetzel reminds me most of a higher-registered, younger William Clark Green, at least in terms of his phrasing. And I’ll give him this – he’s got charisma and chops as an emotive interpreter. Even it’s pretty obvious why someone would leave him like on “Too High To Cry,” he’s genuinely impressive at drawing sympathy from the listener regardless, if only because he’s self-aware of the danger he brings and yet doesn’t know how to stop it. It’s what makes “The Worst Part” another startling and honest cut. There’s also times where he stretches his limits as a technical performer to good limits like on the chorus of “Powerball.” In terms of melodic presence, also, Wetzel is on to something here.
But going back to the lyrical content, the sad part about Harold Saul High is that there’s many genuinely good moments that feel underdeveloped. I like the honest approach of “She Can’t Stop Crying,” yet to have it end on that note and not explore the fallout of it all seems like a wasted opportunity for something deeper. And while the album actually has a few cute love songs thrown into the mix, “One and Only” works better than “L.T.W.Y.H.M,” which, stupid acronym aside, is really an uninteresting concept for a song that goes nowhere. Even though the point, too, of “Nothing Left To Say” is exactly what the title says, when the song’s main sticking point is that both lovers are burned out and nearing their end, you end up wishing it explored the background of that relationship instead of simply the aftermath. Again, for as detailed of a writer as Wetzel is, these are moments that are missing that next step to show his growth as a songwriter.
But all in all, it’s tough to say what the results of Harold Saul High will ultimately be for Wetzel. In terms of sales and impact, that’s not up for debate, but if you’re trying to answer the question of whether or not Wetzel can build beyond catering to his specific demographic, Harold Saul High was that chance, and yet I can’t say with full certainty that it gets all the way there. Still, the album evokes an interesting discussion, and given that Wetzel isn’t going away anytime soon, it is nice to hear some improvement from him.
(Decent to strong 6/10)