Dark, worldly-wise solo return from Van der Graaf Generator man
The overthrow of punk’s sweeping anti-prog diktats in recent times, 2000’s heavy-selling Van der Graaf overview The Box, last year’s sold-out, 50-song solo concert cycle, and fans from Graham Coxon to John Lydon?these have all contributed to the re-emergence of Peter Hammill from self-imposed exile on the far fringe of English rock (Bath, to be exact). But this astringent new album shows him still locked on his own uncompromising, unpopular path.
Written on acoustic guitar?attempting, Hammill says, to return to “first principles”?the songs here are still expansive in a way, with ambient guitar squeaks, strings, and Van der Graaf sax man David Jackson among the embellishments. “The Ice Hotel” especially, with its fantastical metaphor for human vanity, floating, full textures and shifting time signatures, could be an outtake from Hammill’s old crew. But what’s striking are the dark, intimate lessons Hammill (54) has to offer, uncomfortable revelations of time’s cost. Delivered in his familiar tones?melodramatically howling one minute, melancholically soft the next?it’s not an easy ride, and sometimes verges on pompous. But when Hammill hits the spot, he’s doing so in unsavoury corners few others care to turn.
“Once You Called Me” is the most naked song here, about a father’s helpless love for his daughter (“And if trouble’s on its way you know I’d lay my life down for you gladly… Oh, my precious girl”). But “We Are Written” and “Driven” are the cornerstones, about how fate tramples our futile plans, while “Bareknuckle Trade” presents a lifetime metaphor of scarring aptness. Spread over eight minutes, it’s an epic, complex sprawl, from regular folk strums to treated sax and violas meeting in some sinuous, snake-charmer’s sonic space. The song’s rests and surges, and Hammill’s voice at its most crooningly sorrowful, support his lyrics’ lament for the price of a life: the (sometimes literal) scraped knuckles, bruised skin and half-healed black eyes we accrue through the years, till we’re too tired to keep up the fight. Worth your attention.