Ryan H. Walsh was having a rough time while making “I’m You,” the latest album by his band Hallelujah the Hills.
It should have been a triumphant moment: Walsh was just off the publication of his 2018 book “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968,” a critically acclaimed telling of how the ’60s counterculture intersected with Boston, where Van Morrison holed up while working on what became his touchstone album. Instead of reveling in his achievement, Walsh was wrestling with depression and mental health issues. “I didn’t feel like myself, or my normal self,” Walsh says, ahead of a release show for the local group’s new album Dec. 19 at Great Scott in Allston.
His solution, along with therapy and medication, was to show himself the way forward by writing songs, as if he was letting his subconscious set the course. The result is an album unlike anything Hallelujah the Hills has done since Walsh started the group in 2005. “I’m You” is far more direct and overtly autobiographical than any of the band’s six previous albums, with 10 shaggy songs that fall somewhere between indie-rock, folk, and Americana, running in the order that Walsh wrote them. “It’s like the album begins at the start of a crisis and then follows it through, with me writing an outcome I hoped would happen,” he says.
“I’m You” is also a sprawling record: eight of the songs are more than six minutes long. Though the music never lags, the songs unfold at a measured pace, with guitars blurring into rich horn parts on opener “My Name Sounds Sinister,” eddies of keyboards and strings drifting beneath Walsh’s voice on the title track, and a roiling, discordant middle section on “I Went Through Hell” that emphasizes the theme of the lyrics. Despite such moments of anguish, “I’m You” is self-aware enough that it doesn’t wallow in misery. The songs are wry and philosophical, with little flashes here and there of the absurd. “You’d think I was some kind of bellboy/ With all of this baggage I’ve been bringing,” he sings on “Born to Blow It,” written with his wife, Marissa Nadler (the pair recently separated, though they remain married).
“If you follow the band, and you imagine what the next record would be, I don’t think you’d imagine this,” Walsh says. “The lyrics are different, there’s a shift in sound and lyrical content and intent.”
Writing the “Astral Weeks” book helped shape the way Walsh approached songwriting for “I’m You.” (It influenced the sound, too: the song “It Still Floors Me” features flute and alto saxophone from John Payne, who played on Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” album and lives in Brookline.) “The book is a pretty straightforward nonfiction narrative, and to see that I could do that and tell a story that people could get engrossed in, I started to think I had relied too much on abstract poetry” in his previous lyrics, Walsh says.
Laying out his personal turmoil in fairly stark terms wasn’t always a comfortable endeavor, but Walsh says he was committed to doing it as long as the songs didn’t come off like woeful teenage diary entries. “I was nervous, but I’m 40, and what I care most about in life is creativity and making things, so I felt I had no right to be worried about the reception,” he says. “That’s the beautiful thing. People can love it or hate it, and that’s kind of none of my business.”
Walsh’s sudden lyrical forthrightness came as a surprise even to other members of the band. “Ryan and I have a long history of me trying to get him to tell me what songs are about, and he’ll never do it,” says Nicholas Ward, who played baritone guitar and piano on the album. “He likes covering things up and burying the meaning of things, and on these songs, you can tell from the first listen that he’s singing what he’s feeling about stuff.”
In the end, the outcome Walsh was hoping for did come to pass: He found his way back to feeling like his normal self, and he’s grateful for it. He sums up the ride on the final song, the quiet piano ballad “The Memory Tree,” which contains a sort of lyrical Easter egg for fans who know the band’s music particularly well. “Every line of the second verse references a Hills song from the past, and it goes in order through our albums,” Walsh says.
Ending “I’m You” by revisiting earlier albums feels a little like a culmination, though Walsh and Ward say Hallelujah the Hills has no plans to stop anytime soon. For one thing, they enjoy what they’re doing together too much to wrap it up. “It’s almost like we’ve been practicing 15 years so we could make this record,” Ward says.
Follow Eric R. Danton on Twitter @erdanton
HALLELUJAH THE HILLS
With Major Stars and Adam Schatz. At Great Scott, Allston, Dec. 19, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets $13 in advance, $15 at the door. 617-566-9014, www.greatscottboston.com