Is Path Warm?, the debut full-length from Mister Goblin (the musical moniker of songwriter and Two Inch Astronaut frontman Sam Woodring), takes its name from a mnemonic device used by healthcare workers to assess someone at risk of harming themselves. Pulled from Woodring’s career in the mental health field, it’s a fitting title for a deeply empathetic album that ponders the absurdities of life, the sheer enormity of trying to effectively help those in need, and above all, the importance of trying.
After Woodring’s longtime band announced an indefinite hiatus, it didn’t take long for the Washington DC-based songwriter/multi-instrumentalist to dive into a new project on his own. “I’d done a few solo shows during Two Inch Astronaut, and I’d always wanted to get to the point where I could write a song and have it be complete and portable,” Woodring says. “But I’d spent so long in a band that it was hard to break habits and get out of that specific thing.” His 2018 EP Final Boy began to shake any overly familiar traits, and now with Is Path Warm?, Woodring has truly defined Mister Goblin’s sound.
“It took much longer to write the EP and figure out how to make it feel different than the Two Inch stuff. Now that’s a lot more natural,” he explains. “For this album, I didn’t have a picture in my mind of what I wanted it to be, I just wanted to write songs and whatever happens, happens.” The result is an album that captures all of Woodring’s diverse musical interests in a way that feels dynamic and not easily classifiable, all without sacrificing cohesion. Recorded with the legendary J. Robbins at the Magpie Cage Recording Studio in Baltimore, Maryland, Is Path Warm? combines ‘90s indie idiosyncrasies, singer/songwriter storytelling, anthemic alt-rock hooks, and even a touch of Dischord intensity to create Mister Goblin’s inviting musical tonic. “The songs are poppier and more streamlined that I would have imagined,” Woodring says. “I wanted them to be lyrically focused and more than a collection of riffs.”
Woodring’s lyrics on Is Path Warm? are driven by agile vocals and a knack for melody, and demand the listener’s attention. Though a “solo project,” his lyrical themes come from an uncommonly external place with Woodring’s work in mental health inspiring much of the album. “The record is about the system and how we understand others’ struggles, and how we intervene.” Is Path Warm? wrestles with big ideas in an intimate way, often finding a balance between vulnerability, humor, and understanding all within the same song. “In the mental health field everything seems to have an abbreviation or a device to simplify the ways we assess people, and they’re all kind of ridiculous at face value,” Woodring explains. “It’s kind of grim, but also heartwarming that people go to these great lengths to try and group symptoms in an effort to help.”
That open heartedness is on full display in “Health Class Teacher,” which opens the album with a story about a high school teacher trying to contract her students to never hurt themselves—an arguably futile, but well intentioned gesture that Woodring connects with his current experiences overtop gently picked acoustic guitar and warm vocal harmonies. Speedy Ortiz’ Sadie Dupuis lends her voice to several songs on Is Path Warm?, including “Calendar Dogs”—an unabashed rock song featuring one of the album’s most irresistible choruses. Elsewhere, “No Crime Here” recalls some of Two Inch Astronaut’s rhythmic quirks and kineticism, while “Between You and Me” examines the distances between people and elusiveness of mutual understanding over top of plaintive chords and chiming piano. Woodring often jumps between the deeply personal (“Fix Your Face”) and abstract (“Any Other Gun”), each song possessing an intentionally self-contained sonic and lyrical identity, and connected by his voice and sense of down-to-earth hopefulness.
Album closer “SFYL” looks at processing grief and the kind of bizarre depersonalization that thrives in modern communication. “On social media there’s even an ‘LOL’ style abbreviation for ‘sorry for your loss,’” Woodring says. “It’s the least possible effort you can put into consoling someone, it seems a little weird even when it’s in earnest, but maybe it can still be helpful—even if it seems like a strange thing.” Throughout Is Path Warm?, Mister Goblin captures these small, off-kilter but sometimes oddly comforting feelings, and channels them into music that’s just as multi-faceted, intricate, and human. It’s an album that acknowledges that while the complexities of existence, pain, or love can’t be compressed down to an acronym, a simple promise, or even a record, there’s value in caring enough to try.