Over the course of 2019, Paste has reviewed about 300 albums. Yet, hundreds—if not thousands—of albums have slipped through the cracks. This December, we’re delighted to launch a new series called No Album Left Behind, in which our core team of critics reviews some of their favorite records we may have missed the first time around, looking back at some of the best overlooked releases of 2019.
Sean Henry has a sneaky way of making imperfect songs sound perfect. His casual vocal style might not be for everyone, but his grabby melodies and uncanny ability to layer instruments will fool most into thinking they’ve uncovered an alt-rock cult classic from back in the day.
Connecticut singer/songwriter Sean Posila, who records as Sean Henry, began releasing music in 2015 with a cassette titled It’s All About Me, filled with skeletal lo-fi rock so muddy that it’s hard to think of anything else to call it besides “angsty hubbub.” However, songs like “Busted” had a cool, unconventional bent that piqued my interest. Henry dropped his proper debut album Fink in 2018, and though it fully leaned into (Sandy) Alex G-isms and the tedious sprawl of slacker rock, there was a melodic intuition that was obvious.
With his new album A Jump From The High Dive, Henry trimmed the fat, honed his strengths and added a wider, more palatable range of reference points. Ditching the more lax qualities of Fink, Henry goes straight for the jugular with bigger, sunnier choruses and glorious, double-tracked vocals à la Elliott Smith. I’m actually convinced this album has the best opening five-track run of any album I heard in 2019. In the span of this near-perfect sequence, you’ll hear funky wah-wah guitars, weighty riffs and tender sing-along vocals, all cloaked in a timeless, lemony haze. Despite its November release date, this is charming, feel-good music much better suited to backyards in the summer than apartments in the winter—though funnily enough, the pumping grittiness of tracks like “Surf Song” and “Touch the Sun” would definitely make me trudge faster through the snow.
It’s not just Henry’s stunning pop alchemy that make this record so easy to latch onto: His self-deprecating lyrical charm will place you squarely on his team. It’s on full display in tracks like “Can U,” where Henry employs dark humor (“Lived in New York City / Everyone’s a jerk / Saw some ripped up dollar bills / Then I went to work”) and begs to be saved from “the idiot disease” over wonderfully warped guitars. On “Surf Song,” he’s a straight-up goofball (“Acting mellow like Jell-O / Cause you know you should / See satan in the soda and some angels in the air / C’mon”), but combined with programmed drums, a ripping guitar riff and hip-hop-meets-rock vocals, it’s a surprisingly fun highlight.
After leaving New York (“New York had broken up with me”), Henry retreated back home to Connecticut to work on this album and spent time listening to old hip-hop and ’90s alternative CDs in his car. Both touchstones are immediately apparent in the tracklist: With nods to veterans Sparklehorse and Wilco and contemporaries like Hovvdy and Young Guv, Henry marries the funky, off-kilter and classic on this album, which he calls “[his] version of a pop album.” This is mostly accurate, apart from moments like the wonky ambiance of “It’d Never Be Enough” or the shouted, dissonant outro of “You Fall Away.”
Once (not if) the layered vocals of songs like “So Real,” “Rain, Rain” and “You Fall Away” have wormed their way into your psyche, there’s not much you can do to reel them out. The easy-going earnestness of “Rain, Rain” is even more touching once you learn Henry wrote its melodies as a child and used to sing the refrain (“Rain, rain come to me, come to me today”) to himself at age eight, in hopes of getting his Little League games cancelled. Despite the album’s dreariness, there’s plenty of sun peeking out through the clouds—whether it’s the breezy rhythms of “Touch the Sun” or the positively invigorating climax of “You Fall Away,” A Jump From The High Dive recognizes it’s best to bide your time and find community in your struggles.
Henry’s musings on memories is what largely gives this record its vivid melancholia. On “Touch the Sun” Henry sounds like a starry-eyed schoolboy waiting for that summer that’s going to change everything (“Who’s got the facts? / I’m talking science and I’m talking math / Give myself a heart attack / Another day in this stick town life”). But with “Space Kicks,” he’s like a cynical highschooler who’s not sure whether he sees a path for himself, but knows he needs his friends (“Remember when we wanted to die / But then again, we didn’t try / We got so high, I started to cry / Put on the TV and we said goodbye”). It’s no wonder the album title gives a nod to the perils of growing up.
Henry doesn’t turn his problems into intellectual profundity, he’s simply there to chronicle all the scary, goofy and surreal ups and downs. His approach to music is similar: He’s not thrashing through metal chords or composing intricate math rock—he channels the breezy, groovy and bittersweet to make something meaningful and cathartic.
A Jump From The High Dive is so warm and compelling because it rests on familiar tried and true comforts, but that doesn’t mean Henry sounds like any one band in particular—it’s because it’s one of those “heard it in past life” records that only requires one listen to fall in love. Though side one is far superior to the more measured side two, this is Henry’s undeniable breakout album. You won’t find a manifesto on how to cope with maturing, but you will find an enduring, chipper lo-fi rock album that will “make everything feel okay,” even if its narrator doesn’t necessarily have sunny ideas about his own future.