[analysis] Hotel Rayman - Allan Rayman
Back in August I was listening to Allan Rayman’s Hotel Allan about once a day, and now I feel like I need to justify it. So here’s some analysis.
Hotel Allan follows the speaker, Allan, as he navigates personal relationships and struggles to “make it” as a professional musician. Although mostly presented in the first-person, Hotel Allan is a self-conscious album. Throughout the story, our protagonist is hyperaware of the destructive patterns in his life and is haunted by the belief that he’s killing everything he loves. This demon follows Allan across several facets of his life, starting with his relationship with his girlfriend, but quickly progressing to his music, and finally his very being.
The first track in the album is Dear Allan, which starts with Allan addressing himself in letter format, and ends with refrains of future songs played over an instrumental that could easily fit as the soundtrack to a nightmare. Dear Allan provides two points of context looking forward. First, Dear Allan establishes the reflective nature of the album, which is useful to keep in mind for when we start reading beyond the literal in later tracks. Despite the plot-driven nature of the album, the events that transpire are actually memories being painfully recalled and rehashed. Second, Dear Allan is grim foreshadowing of what’s to come. Be warned, Hotel Allan is not a happy album, but before we get there we have Kiss.
Kiss encapsulates the “falling in love” part of “killing everything that you love”, and the transition from Dear Allan to Kiss is gorgeous. Dear Allan is about using dark foreshadowing to build suspense and tension, but when we hear the first few bars of Kiss that tension bursts like a bubble. Kiss is about pure beautiful release. It’s like sinking back into an armchair after a long day. It’s beautiful.
It’s also a good example of how Allan uses tension to give this album a story-telling cadence. Unlike most “pop” albums, which are structured around song elements (e.g. verses, choruses), Allan uses the rise and fall of tension to give Hotel Allan its drive. In general, Allan builds tension through complex emotions and ambiguity, and resolves tension through simple emotions and clarity.
This is lyrically exhibited in Kiss‘s second verse, what I would argue is the first true rap verse of Hotel Allan. Up until this point, Allan’s verses have been strained, difficult to hear, full of unpredictable line lengths and unusual rhyme schemes. For example, in the first verse of Kiss, Allan is portraying the complicated pre-love feelings of longing and hopelessness: “… it feels like // a suicide // and yesterday // and tonight is the same old thing.” This lack of predictable structure creates tension, which is resolved in the second verse: “The first kiss is // better than the sexiness // I know my death is // beautiful and reckless.” The change in cadence and rhyme scheme is obvious. This verse has clear, predictable structure, and the result is like a drug to your brain. Allan is falling in love. This is a moment of bliss, but even here we can see that Allan is already sowing the seeds of his own destruction. He may be falling in love, but he’s referring to it as his “death” (however beautiful and reckless it is).
Kiss is succeeded by Beverley, then Barry Moves, then Graceland, which together encapsulate the full arc of Allan’s relationship with his ex. By the first verse of Graceland they’ve broken up and Allan is in complete despair: “So lonely, so sad So vicious, so mad // Poor me, poor me // Poor me, poor me.” From a literal perspective, this plot arc is pretty cut and dry, but it’s important to remember that Allan is using this album to address a deeper anxiety – namely that he’s killing everything he loves. This brings us to the thematic meat of the album, the second half of Graceland.
The second half of Graceland is distinctly different from what we’ve heard thus far. It is a letter, spoken (not sung), by and from the perspective of his ex. The first words she voices are “Dear Allan”, which harkens back to the first track (and first line) of the album, and hints at the intimate connection between this letter and the album as a whole. She proceeds to ask two telling questions: “Why is it so hard for you to find balance between love and music? // Why does loving me mean the death of you?” These questions are the most explicit deconstruction of the plot that we get. They confirm the breakup arc in Kiss, Beverley, and Barry Moves, but also raise new questions. Why does loving me mean the death you? Who is me? Who is you? Allan’s ex continues…
“You told me once that you believed love creates a recipe for death // and I’ve struggled to understand the entrapment that you feel // because I too fear death just as much as anyone else. // Not just in the physical sense of the word // but in the idea of what death represents // dreams and aspirations becoming finite.”
Allan’s ex refers back to a time before the breakup, indicating that Allan’s preoccupation with death is not something new. This forces us to extend our previous interpretation of the album, allowing us to see new subtlety in the pre-existing plot. For example, in Barry Moves Allan says: “I only love one thing // and, goddamn, it’s a melody.” On first listen we assume he’s referring to the “spiral of death” effect preceding the breakup. As his relationship became more of a struggle, Allan found solace in his music, which in turn put more strain on his relationship. With the context of Graceland in mind, however, we see that Allan might not be referring to his relationship struggle at all in this passage. Instead, he might be referring to the creative struggle of being a professional musician and having to share his art with the world. In many ways, this act of sharing is a kind of death. Once a song is released to the public, it becomes fixed in society. It can no longer grow or be modified freely; it is chained by its own expectation. From this perspective, the entire plot can be seen throughout the somewhat meta lens of Allan breaking up with the music he’s created for the album. As he crafts his music he falls in love with it, but like a mother bird he knows there will come a time when he must let his music out of the nest. To Allan, this is akin to killing it.
This takes an even darker turn in 27. We’ve seen how personal the music on Hotel Allan is. Allan Rayman, as an author, does not try to hide the fact that he himself is the subject of much of his music. In some ways, we could even go as far as to say he is his music. As an artist, he is the culmination of all the thought and effort that goes into creating his work. His most grand piece of artistic output is himself. And if Allan believes he is killing his music, then the implication is that Allan is also killing himself: “With all my idols gone // Oh, I’m afraid of 27.” The “27” here refers to the 27 Club, a group of prominent musicians (Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain) that died at the age of 27, usually for drug or suicide related reasons. Allan sees his life heading in a similar direction, and the result scares him.
Musically, 27 is probably the hardest hitting track on Hotel Allan. It veers wildly from somber piano to angry, beat-driven vocals. It simultaneously lashes out at the world, and begs for help: “I may have done some shit // Weathered me as a man // Couple nights, wide awake // Got some pills in my hand.” Allan is out of control. He’s so wrapped up in his own metaphor that it’s starting to overwhelm him, and he compensates by turning to different forms of escape: sleeping, drinking, and taking drugs. He’s terrified of taking the final form of escape, suicide, but instead holds on to the cryptic refrain: “Need a selfish kind of girl // Need a selfish kind of girl, god damn.”
After all this negative emotion, we get a welcome reprieve in the form of Song 512. Song 512 is the counterpoint to 27, where Allan is able to speak coherently and rationally about his life. The “512” refers to the area code of Allan’s hometown, Toronto, and this place of familiarity is reflected in the tone of Song 512. Allan is speaking from a safe place, and he can be honest about his lifestyle. He doesn’t glamorize it, but he comes to terms with the price he’s had to pay in becoming a musician, namely loneliness: “Now all my love is an empty glass // I drink alone, I found love at last.” As we’ve seen previously, Allan’s loneliness is a byproduct of killing the things he loves: his relationships, his music, and himself. In Song 512, it feels like Allan is able to reconcile the first two, and in doing so steps back from the ledge of the third: “Light, camera, action, I’m the boy right now // So watch the boy grow up.” Allan is accepting the role of lead actor in his own life, and even if he isn’t thrilled by the prospect, it’s still a big step up from suicidal.
Alabama’s Song and Tennessee give us our final hit of unsatisfying resolution. Alabama’s Song is a framed story, offering a high level summation of the album: Allan hasn’t overcome his demons, but he’s fought them and lived to fight another day. In Tennessee he’s running: “And don’t follow me // I don’t see eye to eye with society // And I’m a lost boy, forever young // Don’t expect an apology.” This album does not mark a clean transition in Allan’s life. He’s still carrying a lot of the baggage he was holding at the beginning of the album, and he acknowledges this with the reference to Peter Pan’s “lost boys”. Despite this, I think he has grown up, at least a little. After an emotional rollercoaster, Allan has come out alive, and with enough stability to push forward in his life. Most hopeful is the refrain: “My girl, she loves me still // She loves me still // And I don’t know, I don’t know // I don’t know why.” We could interpret this pessimistically. “She” is the most literal embodiment of his demons, and her continuing love for him means that he hasn’t yet escaped the tension that this brings to his life. As he says in the refrain from 27: “Need a selfish kind of girl // Need a selfish kind of girl, god damn.” But Allan doesn’t need a selfish kind of girl. Allan’s music is beautiful, and intricate, and what he needs to do is keep sharing it. He needs a forgiving kind of girl. One that loves him even though he doesn’t know why.
The album concludes with M. Roadhouse, a farewell and a hint of what’s to come. Allan is still running, still recovering, but can feel his demons catching up. He’s preparing for the next encounter: “He starts production on his Roadhouse film // He’s under budget, at a casting standstill // He’s got his beat-up Ford pickup // plans to shoot on film // Presenting Mr. Roadhouse.” Allan, I hope you’re really ready for it.