Maya Hawke Gets Mythological on Chaos Angel

The singer, songwriter, and actress returns with more witty folk-pop that can get mired in half-hearted experiments.

Music Reviews Maya Hawke
Maya Hawke Gets Mythological on Chaos Angel

If you step foot onto a college campus, ask any student who Maya Hawke is. There’s a good chance they’ll have seen her perform in the third and fourth seasons of Stranger Things, Netflix’s record-breaking sci-fi drama. If you ask a student wearing Blundstones who Maya Hawke is, there’s a strong chance they’ll have listened to her music, too. While the 25-year-old is best known for her celebrity pedigree and screen-acting, she’s now three albums deep into a folk-tinged indie pop career that is growing similarly prominent. Chaos Angel is latest effort, released just shy of four years after her debut, Blush. Stylistically, Hawke found her lane fast, releasing understated lyrical pop that touches on her at-once extraordinary and relatable life. Chaos Angel is exactly that, this time chronicling a cycle of love, loss and resurrection—her astute lyricism remaining the backbone of an album that can veer toward stylistically clumsy choices.

Hawke opens Chaos Angel with “Black Ice,” a lullaby waltz featuring the softest of guitars, a suite of guest vocalists and the occasional spoken word recording. “Give up, be loved,” Hawke utters time and time again, as her guest vocalists—Christian Lee Hutson, her brother Levon, Jesse Harris, Will Graefe, her Stranger Things co-star Sadie Sink, Eliza Lamb and Fiona Agger—enter one-by-one, contributing to a proper climax before preventing it from ever actuating. “Dark” follows with a charming minimalism and appropriately cheesy lyrics (“I’m your guitar / Mute me gently / With the palm of your hand”), and while the distorted electric guitar in the song’s midpoint does represent a kind of messy breakthrough, it’s hard to justify such an ungraceful move on an album where Hawke is otherwise shooting for poise.

The handful of tracks on Chaos Angel that wade into distortion, which is growing ever-popular with the recent runaway successes of Wednesday and Slow Pulp, do not suit Hawke’s more conversational approach to delivery. “Okay,” while catchy, overshadows her otherwise strong lyricism at all moments, save for when she repeats, “If you’re okay, then I’m okay.” While it’s an interesting representation of codependency, a novel one it is not. “Missing Out” is an especially charming song with narrative flow and kinetic tune with a guitar solo that feels out of place, messy for mess’s sake. That said, “Not Now Not Never,” a one-minute Auto-Tuned chant, is a fascinating detour that shows Hawke can venture away from her typical sound without compromising what has made her musical output viable: her words. While the acoustic guitar remains her trusty companion, she has some promising allies in electronics.

Where Hawke excels are works where she can set a scene and focus on the acoustic guitar-driven arrangements that support her threadbare voice just right. “Wrong Again” is full of hyper-specific lyrics that approach you-had-to-be-there moments before falling into more familiar gestures: “20 dollars in tokens / To play an hour of Arctic Thunder / Commercial Coke bottle opens / Give your ticket to the usher / I sit too close on purpose / To see if you adjust or hold your ground.” The fingerpicked guitar could not be more beguiling.

“Promise” is calm but softly poignant: “I never promised to come home / You never promised me you’d wait / But a promise is a play thing / Guaranteed to break,” Hawke sings. This chorus stands out among other peaks in Chaos Angel, where she relies on repetition of one- or two-line phrases to get her point across: When it works, it works (“Missing Out”); when it doesn’t, it doesn’t (“Black Ice,” “Okay”). Hawke ends the album on its title track, initiating with just her voice, a minimal piano line and a touch of soul that humanizes her delivery: “I want you / I love you / I promise / I’m sorry.” The guitar occupies a middling space; keys, drums and strings feel more pronounced, giving the song a bigness that Hawke reserves for special occasions. As a wrap-up for her new mythology, one designed to wrap love, loss and resilience in a tight package, it accomplishes its mission in style.

As much as Maya Hawke may be known for her sturdy lyricism, her consistency in style displays confidence: in her writing, in her collaborators (Hutson, Graefe, and Benjamin Lazar Davis, to name a few), in her voice, in her narrative, everything. As she tiptoes out of her well-tread realm, there are some moves that make perfect sense—composing and Auto-Tuning a shanty isn’t for the faint of heart—but the chaos offered through guitar distortion sounds too antithetical next to her level-headed wit. How Hawke and her collaborators will demonstrate versatility is a big question. Chaos Angel delivers what Hawke is known for and steps out of bounds but a few times, suggesting the best next move is to commit to a full-throated rebrand for at least one album cycle or return home with platinum-quality output. The middle ground can only serve her so well; only with a big swing will she craft a new mythology that inspires a fervor worth keeping in focus.

Read our latest Digital Cover Story on Maya Hawke here.

Devon Chodzin is a Philadelphia-based critic and urban planner with bylines at Aquarium Drunkard, Stereogum, Bandcamp Daily and more. He lives on Twitter @bigugly.

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