Hayden Calnin: What it means to be human

Hayden Calnin: What it means to be human

Australian Hayden Calnin, has released a new, emotional and cathartic album ‘What It Means To Be Human’ to remind us all what the true meaning of life is.

Rating: 4/5

Recently I watched Pixar’s movie Soul, which made me feel like a kid discovering the world for the first time again. While listening to Hayden Calnin’s new album What It Means to be Human, I had the same feeling. The pandemic has created an influx of inspiration that only the Greats were able to use in their favour, and this is the perfect example.


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The sound of time. What happened to it?

With the second track – ‘Lightning’ – Calnin shows off his skills in music production, with an elegant trumpet accompaniment and vocal abilities like the ones of Bon Iver. This song is about waiting around, about always wanting the next train, but it never comes. But eventually, we all deserve a chance. It is a reflective start, with the line “I’m alive as the world slows”, trying to embody what everyone has been feeling during the past year and a half. We have all waited but having albums like this out in the world makes it a little easier. 

‘Haunt’ is another highlight of What It Means To Be Human, in which Calnin is vulnerable and honest with his vocal skills. With a gripping yet haunting chorus, again all about time and loss, beautiful and unconventional synths and violin sounds are attached to the backtrack, walking Calnin’s lyrics down the aisle like a father would his daughter. However, believe it or not, this is not the best track. 

After the weakest track of the album – ‘Politicians’ – ‘In The Beginning’ starts playing. Is this what religious people feel when entering a church? Is this what a mother feels when she sees her child for the first time? Is this how we are supposed to feel when we wake up in the morning? Alongside comforting drums, a delicate and sweet lullaby is sung while waiting for the Big Bang. Because that is how the universe came to exist. Coming to existence… What an odd concept, but it must have sounded exactly like this. Like the final minute of this song when a symphony of instruments and harmonies marries together in an explosion of emotion. 

“What is this feeling? It’s more than we asked. Well, who are you asking? Who even cares? It all started somewhere from collision and mess.”

Having fun exploring existence:

Calnin was able to create such a cohesive record that, even when the best song comes around, the listener doesn’t notice it until after the second or third listen. In fact, ‘We Got Gods to Blame’ is the star of the project, in all its simplicity. This song is like a teaching, reproving how, every time something bad happens to us, we blame someone else. It being God, it being the universe, it being our brother. It is our life, so we should live it and, eventually, tell our story. Just like Calnin does in ‘The Parts I Hid Away’.


Before finding oneself, one must lose themselves. Moving away, going through heartbreaks, struggling with mental health… human stuff. “I’m learning me from quiet”, sings Calnin, maybe in an attempt of baring himself to his listeners, or perhaps in a personally cathartic and liberating epiphany. 

“Hold me up, ‘cause darling I’m terrified”

In Soul, Joe holds 22’s hand on her way to the Earth, but eventually has to let go. But those few instances of human contact are what gave her the courage to keep going and start really living.

This album proves we are not alone:

This is a record that only a lot of reading, thinking, meditating, examining can inspire. Calnin has talked to Atwood about his artistic journey that led him to write this album and said: “The album was recorded in a little coastal town on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, Australia. It’s a little pocket of the world I locked myself away in for a few years, trying to feel a little more connected to the Earth.” With ‘Oh What a Mess I’m In’, What It Means To Be Human is nearing the end of the road. Phonetically and production-wise, this is one of the best tracks on the album. The title track is next to last, before the exasperating and tragic ‘End’. 

“So wake me up in the morning, wake me up with a story of your dream. I can hear them talking, talking like this is all we ever need”

The naivety and purity of this line is what makes this album special, it makes it seem out of a love letter. But not directed to a person, but to life. What It Means To Be Human is a love letter to life. Major influences are present, like Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens, Peter Gabriel and James Blake. Nevertheless, Calnin can stand up on its own and create his own musical persona with dignity and professionality.

Listening to ‘End’ is exactly what I imagine dying being like, you know, before the nothingness. As you go towards the light, you hear the planets vibrating and warmth. The same warmth that Calnin’s voice and lyrics provide. As life is made by choices, so is music. Choosing to strip this song back to only piano and voice, and then adding percussions and other instruments at the end was a conscious decision that, in my opinion, worked perfectly as closing track. Towards the end, it seems like Calnin’s voice comes from far away, like he is being pulled away. “The loud is not my place” he, ironically, screams while harmonising with himself and being accompanied by a scale of violins and synths. So, this is the end. But is it?

The end is just the beginning:

If you listen to this album from the first song to last, it is like an eternal cycle. It could play in the background and act like Jonathan Safran Foer’s sound of time for all we know, but we would not be able to hear it. Not because it does not deserve to be heard, but because it is made of glass. Just like I said in the review of Big Red Machine’s new album, the pandemic has had to make people find a companion. Some found it in movies, some in writing, some others in music. And this is exactly what What It Means to be Human is: a companion. 
One of the lines that most impacted me in Soul is: “I heard a story about a fish. He swims up to an older fish and says, ‘I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.’ ‘The ocean?’ the older fish says, ‘That’s what you’re in right now.’ ‘This?’ says the young fish, ‘This is water. What I want is the ocean!’”. To some it may not seem like a grand album, but it is. Everyone, at least once in their life, has admitted they thought life was different, better, more exciting… and this feeling of incompleteness is, exactly, What It Means to be Human.


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