by Annika Eske
Brooklyn-based songwriter S. Holden Jaffe has been releasing singles and EPs for years under the name Del Water Gap. With all of his previous releases, it’s easy to forget that his latest release, the eponymous Del Water Gap, is also the artist’s first full-length album. Already, Jaffe’s EPs such as 1(646)943 2672 and Don’t Get Dark were able to establish Del Water Gap as a songwriter who can create deeply personal and relatable lyrics, and the Del Water Gap album expands on this. The album offers up a tracklist that is charged with desire, jealousy, and pure adoration – and no matter which feelings the album stirs up, it always comes with an honest sense of intimacy.
The closeness felt throughout the album stands out when Jaffe uses music and lyrics that surprise the listener. The first track on the album is “Better Than I Know Myself.” With the sudden entrance of electric guitar and a synthy atmosphere, this track feels like an invigorating plunge into cold water. In seconds, the song converts from a distant-sounding beat to a lively anthem. In parallel with this surprising instrumentation, the lyrics offer a pleasant twist as well. “Don’t you know me… better than I know myself?” Jaffe sings at the chorus. Jaffe suggests that this person is close to him in a way that is hardly possible. Lyrics with a surprisingly sentimental twist also appear in “Sorry I Am.” This satisfyingly frank song could have easily taken the usual route with vague indications of missing a past lover, but“Sorry I Am” veers off the beaten path instead. Where the listener expects the typical phrase “drop-dead gorgeous”, Jaffe chooses to be more genuine and sings, “I wish I could tell you…you’re drop-dead kind.” Meanwhile, the warped-sounding instrumentation seems to further emphasize the distress the song conveys for having wronged someone who is, apparently, drop-dead kind.
Other songs on the album like “Alone Together” and “I Hope You Understand” are more constant with their sentimentality, but the lyrics still manage to be somewhat startling. “Alone Together” builds up suspense with a plucked bass that blends with long synth pads to produce a delicate rippling quality reminiscent of a delay effect. Finally, Jaffe seems to give in when he asks, “Oh love, oh my love, don’t you find it moving how we’re still alone together?” The question is not only startling but also rather beautiful. Comparatively, “I Hope You Understand” is a bit lighter, but uses this levity as an opportunity to be unpredictable. When the instrumentation of the song fills in, Jaffe sings in falsetto, “Even when it’s hurting, I hope you understand what you are to me.” These unexpected doses of sweetness help to make Del Water Gap something special.
Jaffe’s candor also shows up in songs that focus more on envy and yearning. “Perfume” primarily focuses on physical desire: the chorus being “I’m thinking of you, right now, with nothing on but your perfume”. Yet, another defining line of the song is, “I’m in love in a dive bar, it ain’t our parents’ story, but I’ll take it and try hard…” Hence, the song is lustful but also expresses a straightforward and sweet romance by putting forward the intention to make the most of this relationship even if it isn’t a classic love story. Meanwhile, the song “Hurting Kind” takes on a pop sound to ask a serious question. “Is our love the hurting kind? I fear to say it is,” ponders Jaffe. The song sarcastically acknowledges this problem but is also tinged with the pain of this realization and desperation to ignore it: “If we ignore it we could be fine / if we learn our love is the hurting kind, I’ll let it devour me”. This stinging honesty carries through into songs that express jealousy. In “Ode to a Conversation Stuck in Your Throat” Jaffe realizes, “I don’t want anybody else touching you like I do, like I do, like me”. His frank admission stands out through the strained edge to his vocals. The bridge, however, reveals a core of insecurity as he discusses how he hates the thought of his past lover being with someone else.
Still, the most heartbreaking point in the album is certainly “It’s Not Fair !” Jaffe sings about how his lover is “killing [him] softly,” and that is precisely how the song itself feels to the listener. The guitar part, with its wistful slides, offers a taste of deep regret before the plaintive chorus where he laments about unfairness. However, it’s the honesty of the bridge, sung with such emotion, that serves as the final nail in the coffin. “Who am I kidding? / I can’t face you / Let alone my mother asking / How’d you lose her?” The song seems to discuss the end of young love – the end of a relationship he thought would be a “twenty-something ever after.” Associated with specific details like this, the gaping hole left behind by this past lover becomes almost palpable.
Towards the end of the album, Jaffe takes a more passive stance. “Uh-huh” sees Jaffe take a step back. He sings, “I want her back, nakedly,” but then ponders more somberly where he stands with his lover and seems to come to the conclusion that they are on different paths. It is this futile conclusion that gives the final song, “Shortest Love Song”, its woeful quality. “Shortest Love Song” is actually an acoustic take of “Hurting Kind,” but it ends earlier with, “Have you been lonesome too? / And can I kiss you?” In this way, the final song concentrates on the other face of “Hurting Kind:” that which is sentimental and romantic but ultimately implies acceptance that the relationship may never heal. The song is perfect for the conclusion of the album, as it demonstrates the main motifs of Del Water Gap: yearning and sentimentality expressed with the candor that makes this debut album truly exceptional.