‘Grief Museum’ from Hotels on Mars Makes For An Edgy, Confessional Debut (ALBUM REVIEW)

Singer/songwriter Mat Weitman, operating under the moniker Hotels on Mars, is releasing his first solo album, Grief Museum, on February 12th from Styles Upon Styles Records. The first single released into the wild, “Worst Year on Record” gives a pretty accurate preview of the ideas and musical approaches you’ll find on the album, but I imagine there might be a pun in that title that brings a hint of the not-always-terribly-serious undercurrents of the project to the surface, too.

The operating name “Hotels on Mars” suggests strangeness, distance, quite possibly isolation, and these are all things that human beings alive right now understand too well, but the unabashedly referential aspects of the new album carry current life to the fore much more firmly. Weitman has been clear about the fact that the album is autobiographical and that it more or less documents the early part of his own 2020 experience, overloaded with the grief of both losing a close friend and enduring a relationship’s break up. 

There’s a very interesting tension throughout Grief Museum between the often incredibly haunting and well-crafted multi-instrumental parts and the surprisingly direct vocals and lyrics. The music can at times feel otherworldly, soothing, hypnotic, and the arrival of lyrics creates a radically different dialog that renders the experience far more human and raw. You can see this duality when listening to a couple of the tracks where vocals are less dominant, like “Grief Museum Rag” and “For Dee”, as a kind of control group, and then comparing that to the impact of deeply personal vocals and lyrics on songs like “Indiana” and “All I Want Is A Picture of Your Favorite Bar”. 

It’s possible that Weitman intends just this kind of contrast and volatile combination, since we find the same tension in the album title, with grief as an incredibly personal thing, and a museum being an abstract frame of reference for created objects. The music on the album is as polished and reflective as a museum might be, while the lyrics and vocals are as emotive and personal as grief necessarily is.

It’s surprising to learn that Weitman recorded the album very quickly during the months of March and April 2020, since the musical compositions on the album suggest a great deal of refinement, but Hotels on Mars does go back to 2010, with Weitman setting the project aside between 2014 and 2020, suggesting that some creative groundwork had already been laid in the past for songwriting and recording on this scale. What is possible is that creating the album quickly allowed Weitman less room for self-censorship, particularly when it comes to genre, since Grief Museum ranges widely between soothing electronic layers and roots music flare. 

The album feels documentarian and intensely tied to real-life experiences without excluding the audience or going down rabbit holes of emotion where outsiders cannot follow. However, it does occasionally teeter on that edge that’s reminiscent of a turbulent late-night phone call with a distraught friend who you wouldn’t dream of hanging up on during these extreme times. For those who have been on either end of that phone call, hearing its musical counterpart aired publicly is confessional and cathartic, pushing against the veneer of coping that people may feel pressured to maintain. 

Grief Museum an album best listened to from first to last to comprehend the full sweep of its range, though choosing some favorites allows for diverse tastes in musical style. Audiences should be aware that the album does speak very frankly of depression and possible suicidal ideation (as in the track “(I Don’t Want To) Hurt Myself”), as well as of many beautiful, strange memories and impressions drawn from life. Weitman’s earnestness and pursuit of beauty make for an edgy, winning combination on debut album Grief Museum.

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