Knowing that Shawn Hewitt’s debut album, Spare Hearts, was recorded by Dave Newfield of Broken Social Scene will give you the wrong idea about this album. For starters, you can actually make out every instrument on the album with relative ease. This contrasts with Newfield’s typical method of recording with Broken Social Scene, which involves piling tracks upon tracks until each instrument is almost indistinguishable from the others.
That isn’t to say that Spare Hearts is particularly bare bones. In fact, as far as debut albums from singer-songwriters go, Spare Hearts is impressively diverse in its instrumentation. That’s to say, it’s not just a guy in his mid-twenties strumming out a few major chords in 4/4, backed up by a bassist, drummer, and lead guitarist. At the very least, Shawn Hewitt successfully steers away from that largely uninspired format.
The arrangements on Spare Hearts are the album’s most noteworthy strength. Opener “Keep Them At Bay,” with it’s stuttering digital drums, manipulated synths, and dominant piano, could be seen as a rowdy rejoinder to Thom Yorke’s solo album, The Eraser. Similarly, “Hollow the Leader” thrives on the strength of propulsive digital drums and forceful piano strikes that are well punctuated with ghostly interludes (though between the title of this song and the album, Hewitt really seems curious how many shitty puns his audience is willing to endure). Actually, it’s pretty clear that a lot of the best moments on Spare Hearts came from good ideas in the studio.
Unfortunately, Spare Hearts has a pair of un-ignorable problems that consistently drag it down. The first is Hewitt’s voice. It’s not unpleasant by any means, but the two most obvious references that leap to mind are Seal and Stevie Wonder, only minus any kind of edge or roughness to it. Given that most people would probably not describe Seal or Stevie Wonder’s voices as edgy or rough, you can imagine how benign Hewitt’s voice is. Some people may love Hewitt’s singing, but considering the boisterous music backing him up, one can’t help but wonder how much the album would improve with a more intense singer.
Secondly, the lyrics, at their best, are nothing extraordinary, and can be distractingly bad at their worst. “I’ll be your Mr. don’t break it/ as long as you Ms. don’t fake it/ don’t be confused, I’m no Mr. fix it,” is a line that would land with a thud even if it were only said once. Making it the central lyric of a song (as in “Mr. Don’t Break It,” obviously) is a little more difficult to forgive. But that’s the low end. Most of the lyrics are not nearly as problematic, just so straightforward that they end up non-descript, but maybe that’s the aim. After all, everyone should be able to relate to a line like “I don’t know where it had me/ I thought that I would stay free,” if he or she has ever suffered some vague, personal turmoil.
Lyrical and vocal deficiencies would usually make a debut album from a singer-songwriter a non-starter, but that’s not the case with Spare Hearts. Those aforementioned problems are present enough in the album to keep it from achieving greatness, to be certain, but Hewitt willingness to experiment with his songs is admirable. Adding lush orchestration and elements of electronica (and Hewitt has listed Kraut-rock as a major influence, but I truly don’t hear it) to piano-based compositions is not necessarily anything new, but Spare Hearts shows that it is still a fruitful endeavor.