They’re headed nowhere
On Interstate Eighty tonight
And now he won’t dare
To tell her it’ll be alright
Lock Haven, a college town nestled between rolling hills and a peaceful river in central Pennsylvania, is the setting for a very specific world outlook – something locally dubbed ‘Pennsylvania Gothic.’ At once a hub and desert of culture, the hamlet’s surrounding forests, transience, and rich history make it a curious world of paradox.
Although New York City is currently where singer-songwriter Brian Michael Henry calls home, his extraordinary collection of songs in If I Have To Stop This Car casts a faint reflection in West Branch of the Susquehanna. Change happens at a glacial pace in that atmosphere, and while it is inevitable, it is often met with turbulent waters, particularly for those deemed misfits.
Brian Michael Henry is all about embracing change and forging new paths with this extraordinaty collection of songs that dance with death, second chances, disappointment, the promise of salvation, relationship rifts, and queer love. Channeling the energetic imprint of Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy,” the mournful crooning style of Orville Peck or Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy, and the candour of Stephen Merritt, the golden-throated Henry takes us on a beautiful odyssey of soul evolution.
If I Have To Stop This Car is the second full-length album by Brian Michael Henry, after 2021’s Remote Work. Sonically, it is a move further in the direction Henry took with The Horror! The Horror!, his 2022 EP: pulsing synths, warm bass vocals, catchy hooks, and clever lyrics on unusual themes.
“Every song on this album is about trying to change someone,” Henry says of the record’s subject matter. “Well, some of them are more like wishing you could change them while not trying all that hard.”
In an electrifying tribute to the late, great Ronnie Spector, “Never Be My Baby” bursts forth as a beacon of melody, honoring the void left in the celestial tapestry of music legends. “Clone You” explores the longing for second chances in relationships, while “Back To River City” conjures an imaginative coda to Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. The song follows Marian the Librarian and Harold Hill on their escapades across America, culminating in Marian’s decision to abandon her partner-in-crime and return to River City, Iowa.
With hints of Talking Heads and LCD Soundsystem, “Diorama” is an exhilarating track laden with playful vocal spasms, effervescent synths, and sharp electric guitars. The album then veers into murkier territory with “Eternity,” a chaotic, twisted take on the traditional Christian rock ballad. The album’s penultimate tracks, “Lifeguard” and “Famous,” are awash with synths that chirp, sparkle, and reverberate. “Lifeguard” tells the story of a protagonist lamenting his boyfriend’s new job, while “Famous” delves into the cold-hearted world of a ruthless social climber, willing to discard love in pursuit of stardom.
The album ultimately concludes with the poignant ballad, “Ghosts Without Saying.” As a collective exploration of the power to change others, the album’s resolution suggests that such transformations are, ultimately, unattainable.
Brian Michael Henry got his start at Penn State University, earning a BA in Vocal Performance, before moving to the Big Apple to pursue a Master’s in Vocal Performance and opera. He has since established himself firmly in the New York theatre world and various touring companies. Henry’s operatic training comes through in his gorgeously resonant voice, but in If I Have To Stop This Car, his traditional songwriting prowess is juxtaposed with synth-heavy instrumentation, new wave, and post-punk influences. All the tracks on this album were written, performed and produced by Henry, but he has brought in his frequent collaborators Colin Summers (guitar and bass) and Luke Darnell (guitar) into the fold on half of the album.
“I’m a pianist, so pretty much everything is written on the piano, and every song has to have a version that can exist with just voice and piano,” Henry explains. “But even while I’m at the upright, I’m hearing the version that’s electronic, or synth-driven. The cyborg version of the song. I guess all of my songs are twins.”