Allan Hill - Oxford (Album Review)

In an interview with LensCulture, The Guardian photography columnist Sean O'Hagan opined, "I wonder if a photograph can express, say, regret, sorrow, or loss in as powerful a way as a poem or a piece of music? Personally, I think not." His thought echoes that of past philosophers, including Arthur Schopenhauer, who deemed music to be simultaneously different and superior to all other arts, as it is not dependent on representation. Yet, when coupled with lyrics, music takes on a new, visual form; that of the song. On "Oxford", Canadian artist Matteo Gueli, aka Allan Hill, uses his experience as a photographer to capture moments in time, not with a camera, but with musical and lyrical expressions of youth and romance. Played with his light acoustic guitar, textured whisper, and noun-rich lyrics ("burnt toast and magazines"), these nine brief tracks channel Sufjan Stevens, Paul Simon, and Elliott Smith to create winning portraits of warm Quebecois summers and complex characters. 

The opening track, "Angell Woods", features discordant keys and synth that add colour but ultimately make the track sound drunk. Thankfully, "This Time of Year" and "The Alexander" are void of decoration; the simplicity of guitar and voice is more than enough to convey the subject-heavy message ("I wish I could feel more"). "66" and "Three Hundred Thousand" are embellished with an earthy banjo and distant piano keys, which manage to add quite a bit of musicality without much distraction, yet it's the vivid lyrics that make the biggest impression ("full sink in the kitchen and trash in the driveway/learning the truth of impermanence the hard way").


Gueli is a talented photographer, and the album cover for "Oxford" features him taking a mirror selfie with an analogue camera. His songs are highly visual in nature ("orange light from the neighborhood watch"), but, in places, the emotional aspect to the scenes could use a tad more depth-of-field. Gareth Black's contribution to "Vankleek Hill Demo", which he co-penned, helps add some of this; his chasmic voice offsetting Gueli's honeyed but deadpan delivery. "Cemetery", which at three minutes, is the longest and most watered-down track here, though perfectly serviceable and fit for any acoustic coffee shop playlist. Allan Hill succeeds most when he combines his neat fingerpicking and descriptive lyrics with the succinctness and immediacy that is warranted by such musical excursions, like on the fantastic title track and the highlight, closer "Goodbye Blue Monday", which employs a sweeping melody and field recordings of a party to produce a song that holds you from start to finish.

"Oxford" feels like a good songwriter figuring out how to be a great one, finding some gold along the way.