Formed in 1999, Har Mar Superstar may have started out as a vehicle for Sean Tillman’s hipster-Weird Al Yankovic alter-ego. But in the intervening decades Tillman has grown the band into a group that shows serious devotion to ’70s R&B. Roseville, Har Mar’s seventh studio album, maintains this dedication while branching out into other easy-listening sounds. The album is a testament to the maturation of Tillman’s lyricism, which still manages to show spritely bursts of irreverence.
The first track is an exemplar of this balance found in most of the album’s songs. “Solid Ghost” opens with a single piano and Tillman musing on suicide: “There was a time I felt less human and more like a solid ghost/ … Never tried to take my life, but I admit that I got close.” He then launches into an energetic and upbeat love song featuring tinkling bells and a jazzy array of brass and woodwinds.
The love continues with a mellower but no less urgent tone on “Where We Began.” The track captures the emotional highs of on-again, off-again relationships, and makes great use of well-timed saxophone solos. “Another Century,” the last of the album’s celebration-of-love songs, starts strong with featured artists Kam Franklin’s soulful contralto and Jackie Venson supplying bluesy guitar riffs. Tillman harmonizes well with Franklin and delivers the amusing lyrics for which Har Mar is well known: “I’m cooing like a baby/ Just like somebody paid me/ A little goo goo goo and ga ga ga ga.”
Har Mar Superstar has touted Roseville as a “genre hopping masterpiece,” and “Hello, Mr. Sandman” provides some credence to this claim. Seamlessly switching from soul to chillwave, the adult lullaby about insomnia is as beautiful as it is conceptually satisfying. The track, nearly half of which is purely instrumental, features dreamy vocalizations, gliding synths, and lush sax and mellophone solos.
Har Mar takes another hop with folk-rock offering “Patchwork Prisms.” Although the song is stylistically the album’s most removed, its lyrics provide vivid imagery that ties it back to Roseville’s themes of sleeplessness, loneliness and the dangers of over contemplation. Tillman, whose voice is a bit lackluster on the preceding track, “Sleight of Hand,” redeems himself in “Patchwork” with full-throated vocals in the song’s latter half.
“Neon Aglow,” driven by electric guitar riffs, takes a quick detour into late ’70s glam rock. The song is the album’s loosest, lyrically speaking, but Tillman manages to add some fun as he matter-of-factly asks, “What’s the wildest time you ever had in your life?/ Mine was trippin’ balls when the car came alive.” The track includes bursts of discordant saxophone, giving “Neon” a slightly dystopian glow.
Turning to early ’90s pop, “Hearts Have Misspoken” is a somewhat generic breakup-to-makeup song, but it does manage to showcase Tillman’s full vocal range. “Burn the Page” is possibly the album’s best, lyrically speaking. Tillman deftly weaves in nautical metaphors in this ode to self-loathing, and his cynically resigned tone ensures that lines like “Take the helm as I write myself into the bottom bargain basement shelf” don’t hit too hard. The song really opens up at the chorus. With the aural equivalent of a star-wipe, it switches from a simple drum machine beat to full drums with hazily harmonized backup vocals reminiscent of those employed by Bowie and Queen.
Highlighting the parallels between reckless driving and reckless relationships, “Hit and Run” serves up a comical allegory on the alluring but misguided decision to pursue a romantic partner that can only end in disaster. Tillman opens singing, “I bop my head side to side when I realize I’ve been driving too aggressively” to an energetic beat designed to have listeners bopping along with him.
Har Mar Superstar wraps up the melancholy laced Roseville on a decidedly down note. Where earlier songs take a more nuanced tack, “You’re Not Alone” offers a dirge for relationships that end not with a bang, but rather a whimper of slowly simmering neglect. Shying away from the exuberant horns of earlier tracks to primarily rely on piano backed by shimmering synths, the song is the album’s most subdued.