I don’t remember exactly how I first found Hotel Books. It was my sophomore year of college and they had released only one EP at the time. It was the original lineup, with people whose names elude me entirely.
It was shortly after this point that Cam decided to release the b-sides EP with the post-rock instrumentation of guitarist Kevin Glaudel. It was definitely a change in direction, though it’d be hard to say that Hotel Books really had a specific sound at this point.
Their Facebook page had somewhere around 300 likes. They released a numbered tape release that included Shrinky Dinks in a brown lunch bag, along with a hand-written note. It was truly the essence of DIY. Cam even added me as a friend to confirm my order, and while we were never extremely close, we did have some conversations here and there.
Then I deleted my Facebook to disconnect. Then I got a job in social media and needed to reconnect. And Cam and Hotel Books were overlooked in that process. There was another two-song EP with Hollow Light / Hollow Lover and Empty Courage / Empty Heart followed by the compilation album, “Everything We Could Have Done Differently”.
I was still following Hotel Books, albeit from a distance. They were signed shortly after this point and their following grew exponentially. This saw the release of several full-lengths, lineup changes, and a further development in their sound. Their likes climbed from 300 to over 70,000 in just about five years. It’s surreal; it’s like going to a high school reunion and finding out a friend you lost touch with is now president of a Fortune 500 company.
On the latest Hotel Books release, “Equivalency”, it’s evident Cam is not remiss about the success he’s found. At the same time, there’s an uncomfortable level of honesty of how that success hasn’t always been fulfilling at times, with a slew of confessions many artists are too proud to utter: music has gotten in the way of his faith, his desire to make it big has torn him from the people he loved, and people have begun idolizing him.
Even though I haven’t been a huge fan in the past years, mostly due to personal negligence, I still have a personal connection to this album. In some ways, it’s the same relationship I have with American Arson – when you follow the individuals behind the music, there’s a larger narrative. There are interwoven references and moments you share with the artists. Maybe your personal paths only intersect every few years, but knowing where an artist has been gives a different lens through which to hear the music.
“Equivalency” is arguably the most diverse Hotel Books yet. The spoken word/post-rock combination of old has been refined over the past few albums into a mix of melodic hardcore, emo, and even hints of pop punk. Cam’s signature lyrics and spoken word elements are still present, but there’s a fair share of screaming as well. This is the first album where singing has also been a primary focus, with highlight tracks being Van Nuys and Celebration.
From Porterville and With Love bookend the album. The titles bear homage to where Hotel Books first started and refer to two essential elements of Hotel Books: the former, faith, the latter, lost love.
From Porterville starts with a grainy phone recording of a woman. Cam recounts having his personal demons sitting on discs that people buy and listen to for entertainment. As a listener, it’s definitely easy to remove the musicians from the experience or try to claim the experiences recounted in lyrics as my own. Here, we get the perspective from the artist who acknowledges, and calls out, this reality.
Van Nuys was the first single from the album, accompanied by a music video where the lyrics are written in a composition notebook. It definitely feels DIY and the lyrics also seem to lament the band’s early days.
I promised myself I’d never neglect another gray sky
Take another trip to Van Nuys and stop at Best Buy
To see if the record I wrote has sold enough
For me to just fade out and let time pass by
There’s a compulsion to continue to create for the fanbase, but laying out all of your emotions in front of large crowds surely must get exhausting and foster some degree of cognitive dissonance. The artist longs to convey honesty, while the crowd often seeks to consume.
Musically, Van Nuys is characteristically emo. There aren’t crazy, complicated riffs – but what is present supplements the lyrics and, again, feels DIY in some sense.
Violent Smile begins with a recording of a woman reading about reasons why relationships end. The same recording is later used to close the album on With Love. The track is one of the most diverse on the album, cycling between spoken word, singing, and screaming. The music is equal parts punk and post-rock.
When Celebration was released, there were mixed reactions. The video (seen below) shows Cam depicting various personalities (or musical stereotypes), the most notable involving wearing juggalo makeup. Lyrically, “We sound nothing like we did at the start” could not be any more of a true statement. It’s pretty upbeat musically, leaning more toward pop punk, leading many fans to believe that the album would abandon the old sound. While this song certainly is a departure in sound, it does speak to the larger scope of Hotel Books’ discography: they do sound decidedly different than their earlier material, even on the other songs on the album. While the lyrics seem to be in jest or directed at a hypothetical woman, I can’t help but feel like it’s a light-hearted way to convey some serious concepts about losing your identity.
Another phone recording is quickly overtaken by Chase Huglin’s soulful guest appearance on Fears We Create. It’s yet another sonic departure, with a cinematic feel and a wealth of percussion. It’s a characteristic lament of loved loss that we’ve seen on many other Hotel Books releases, but it’s still a very strong song.
The aforementioned uncomfortable honesty is front and center on I Knew Better, But Did Nothing:
We just hoped our rebellion
Would look like rebellion rather than what it is
That target for millennials to put their faith in
But I’m proud to say we made some people
Looking into themselves rather than the evil
And I’ll always thank the ones who trusted to me
Enough to join me on this journey
Even the ones who didn’t stick around
I’m still grateful for the ones who helped shape the sound
Now I just need to thank God for this forgiveness
It’s a catchy track with a powerful chorus.
Take Very Little is a spoken word-driven track, with naught but eerie, ambient sounds as a backdrop. Chris Bernstorf’s guest appearance could easily be mistaken for Levi the Poet; it’s a passionate reminder that God can rebuild brokenness. It’s a bit of an odd track and I’m personally not a huge fan, though it does help with the album’s narrative.
Where I Am is definitely an emotional track; it’d be hard not to quote most of the song for highlight moments but I’m going to try to narrow things down to a few lines:
And I tried to get right from God so many times it doesn’t feel right anymore
So put the salt of the world in these wounds and blind me with the light and let me see this pain in a systematic brain, so I still have some fight in me
The chorus is screamed; instrumentation gets abrasive. The pain is real and the listener can feel it. That’s not something I can say for many songs.
It should come as no surprise to find that the penultimate track, I’m Almost Happy Here, is an anthology of sorts. It was the title of half of the double EP “I’m Almost Happy Here, But I Never Feel at Home” and it is littered with references to previous song and album titles. This kind of thing really gets me excited because it strengthens the narrative. Parts of the vocals are reminiscent of Listener, while other sections have a cadence that could work over a rap beat. The instrumentation builds and adds in trumpet and bells. It’s the kind of explosive end I love.
Ultimately, I’m Almost Happy Here is the true closing song of the album. With Love finishes the album with the recording from Violent Smile. I can thankfully say that, despite being a recording entirely, it’s far from being a throw-away track. Two ex-lovers encounter each other in a grocery store and barely notice each other. Their lives then go separate ways. It’s a heartbreaking end that ties the album together.
“Equivalency” carries on the Hotel Books tradition, but it adds in personal elements that can’t be quantified. The narrative doesn’t exist in the mix or even in the lyrics in some cases, though it’s certainly hinted at. Yes, the music is diverse and there are some great tracks here. Vocals are varied and impassioned. But the real experience seems to rest in watching my life develop alongside Hotel Books and seeing each consequent stage converge and diverge.
If this were to be the final Hotel Books album, it would be very suiting. I’m not suggesting it should be – but there is certainly a sense of closure. I’m Almost Happy Here manages to span the Hotel Books discography with references. Cam recounts the joys and pains of his success. There’s a self-awareness of growth and change, often in less-than-positive ways. It’s reflective and introspective, but it’s not a story anyone could selfishly claim as his or her own.