It was with a degree of amazement that I received a new album by Liam Hayes & Plush a couple of weeks ago. Most people who’ve followed Hayes’ progress over the past 15 years didn’t expect “Bright Penny” to be finished for another few years, even though, technically, the last Plush album came out in 2002.

It was with a degree of amazement that I received a new album by Liam Hayes & Plush a couple of weeks ago. Most people who’ve followed Hayes’ progress over the past 15 years didn’t expect “Bright Penny” to be finished for another few years, even though, technically, the last Plush album came out in 2002.

Hayes, really, is a kind of pop visionary, and one whose pursuit of the gilded sounds in his head brooks no compromise. I wrote about his last studio album, “Fed”, here when it finally gained a UK release last year, and “Bright Penny” is a similarly extravagant confection. How Hayes managed to finance this one remains obscure: among the personnel this time are the same horn arranger, Tom Tom MMLXXXIV (who worked for Earth Wind & Fire), Morris Jennings (Curtis Mayfield’s old drummer), Bernard Reed (Jackie Wilson’s bassist), Brian Wilson’s rhythm section, John Stirratt and Pat Sansone from Wilco and so on.

It’s an auspicious lineup, not least when you remember that Hayes comes from the Chicago underground scene, initially sitting in with the likes of Will Oldham and Royal Trux. I’ve written before about how Hayes’ take on classic songwriting mirrors in some ways that of Oldham – though Hayes’ models are the likes of Burt Bacharach and Jimmy Webb rather than Dylan or whatever.

On “Bright Penny”, though, while Hayes still has a tendency to slip loose from his formal arrangements, the overall package is straighter and slicker. Often, it’s easy to imagine you’re listening to some overlooked artefact from the ‘70s, some collection of flamboyant gestures corralled into an album. Bits of it, frankly, can be a little too sweet for me: “White Telescope” dangles precariously between sounding like a great lost Boyce & Hart song, and resembling something from some sub-Godspell children’s musical. The horns, too, can be too high and bright in places: I’m reminded of Martin Carr ruefully describing a similar sound on “Wake Up Boo” as being “very Jimmy Young”.

Mostly, though, this is another terrifically crafted record, not just privileging Hayes’ gossamer taste in ballads (check out “I Sing Silence”, and its airy nod to the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love?”; or the ravishing “The Goose Is Out”, when Hayes urges, “Let’s watch the stars in my auditorium”) but also his more surging, soulful instincts. “Look Up, Look Down” is the most rocking he’s been since that fabled debut single, “Three Quarters Blind Eyes”.

“We Made It”, meanwhile, mixes up plangent Wilson-esque Fender Rhodes with swooping horn arrangements, a wonderful harmonica solo and Hayes, still sounding as endearingly distracted as ever, possibly hymning his own creative achievements. “Bright Penny” is a much more upbeat, celebratory record than Hayes has made before, perhaps because it often seems engaged with what he’s managed to do, against the odds. The unfeasibly perky “So Much Music”, especially, emerges as a kind of defiant manifesto, noting how music “almost drove me crazy” before Hayes asserts, “No I’m never gonna give up”, then hires a host of backing singers to ram the point home.

Hayes doubtless envisages songs like “So Much Music” as potential hit singles, though it’s hard to remember the last time a record like this was played on the radio, let alone broke into the charts. Pragmatically, the best he can hope for is that the cult status of Plush continues to slowly grow, and that these records are recognised for their frequently great music as well as the extraordinary force of will which compelled them to be made.