02 January 2007

Peter Hammill
the artist as mortal...
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This very welcome new release is Peter’s first true solo recording – in the sense that all of the songs were ‘sung, played, recorded, processed and produced’ by Peter – in many years. When he has enlisted musical assistance, it has always been of the highest quality, from players who were familiar and sympathetic to his work – but I think many of his fans will be happy to hear a completely self-created album at long last.

Just after the final mixes were finished on his last studio album, 2004’s Incoherence, Peter suffered a heart attack – and the thoughts and reflections that naturally accompany such a brush with ‘crossing the line’ are very powerfully at work on Singularity. True art is immortal – artists are not. On his notes concerning the recording and release of this album on his website, Sofa Sound, Peter states ‘…I suppose I can say that most of these songs are Cautionary Tales. Intimations of mortality are present in almost every line…’ Those who are familiar with the depth and scope of Peter’s work know just what level of quality to expect from his lyrics…those for whom this might be their first exposure (if so, folks…you’ve got a lot of catching up to do…!) are in for a treat. Long-time fans will in no way be disappointed with Singularity – and in many ways, this is an excellent place for newcomers to begin to discover the wonders of Hammill’s work.

Several of the songs give voice to concerns about living our lives to the fullest and the soul-searching we might do at the end of our time on this mortal coil. In the relatively upbeat opening track, ‘Our eyes give it shape’, the singer reflects on the uselessness of acting too late (‘…it comes as no surprise that changing all the locks when the horses have bolted is a useless exercise.’), and the treasure of enjoying the small things (‘…the simple pleasure is the mystery spice of life…a simple pleasure in the simple things makes life great.’). ‘Event horizon’ follows, more laid-back musically with beautifully layered acoustic guitars – a more direct reference to Peter’s ‘cardiac episode’, wherein the singer finds himself ‘Flat on my back, I can feel myself falling into a singular state of mind’, he repeatedly invokes the image of ‘crossing the line’ – but hopefully after having the opportunity of ‘…dotting the i’s’ and ‘crossing the t’s’.

‘Famous last words’, the third track on the album, is another song about looking back too late in regret, chiding the addressee: ‘You’ll go out in style, to the last in denial of what anything’s meant.’ The track begins with a surreal, faraway chorus of tweaked voices (all Peter, of course), singing-chanting in a preview of the song-ending coda: ‘It’s a little too late for sorry…’, rather like a Greek chorus chiming in to make sure the point is made to the listener, at the same time a bit like listening to one’s own subconscious (conscience?) – a very effective beginning, especially when it ties into the song’s ending.

‘Naked to the flame’ tackles the ‘regrets’ issue from a slightly different angle – that of an actress (or model, perhaps) so caught up in the maelstrom of the fame machine that surrounds her that she loses touch with reality and gets too close to the flame. Whether she is driven or blinded by ambition and attention, the result is the same, foreseen or not: ‘…though ever eager for the spotlight, she was never really quite ready to be burned…the moth discovers the flame’s naked.’ The arrangement of this track is particularly effective – centered around Peter’s acoustic guitar(s) and what sounds like a bass synthesizer (it could be a treated bass guitar), accompanies by multi-layered voices which relay the feeling of confusion brought about by being pulled from all sides, a bit like the ‘Greek chorus’ effect utilized so well in ‘Event horizon’.

‘Maybe my mother’ is perhaps one of the most personal, moving songs Peter has ever recorded, painting a vivid picture of aging and losing touch with the world. He describes her poignantly: ‘…distance encamped in her eyes, not quite oblivious but close to a state of inertia, in which she won’t even realise how everything’s passing her by.’ The lyrics speak of the inevitability of aging and death as simply parts of life: ‘Some journeys we make alone, somehow we’ll leave all we’ve known.’ Instrumentally this track is built around the piano, with other layers kept to a minimum – very befitting the lyrical content.

‘Vainglorious boy’ is a bit of self-deprecation on the artist’s part – and not the first time Peter has poked a pin at his own balloon, a sign that he doesn’t take himself too seriously (nor should the listener). He’s only human, after all, with foibles to go along with his accomplishments and talents. Despite any success and fame we might enjoy from others, in the end we have to live with ourselves and what we have done with our lives: ‘The idiotic thing is what we have always known…you’ll come to face this audience: yourself, yourself alone.’

‘of wire, of wood’ is a short instrumental, the title referring to the sources of sound in a piano. The music bears a sense of foreboding and pent-up energy, the piano being joined as the piece progresses by some sort of tuned percussion which has a bit of a kalimba-like feeling to it. It’s a perfect introduction to the next song, ‘Friday afternoon’, which addresses the harsh reality that we never know what tragedy seemingly unrelated events will create when the paths of two fates cross. In this case, the singer bids a casual farewell to a friend who has tuned his piano for him, then left for a pleasant weekend with his friends and family. Across town, another person enjoys a ‘liquid lunch appointment when the working week is done…time for just one more before he goes’, thinking that perhaps he should take a cab instead of driving, but dismissing the thought. ‘Blind drunk, he met you head on, on a normal Friday afternoon’ – and the singer laments the loss of his friend: ‘…sometimes we’re pulled up short, quick shockingly defenceless. I don’t know what to do: my piano’s out of tune…’ The tuned percussion from ‘of wire, of wood’ returns toward then end, a musical crossing of paths between the foreboding intro and the story itself – a chillingly effective yet subdued link between the two.

The album ends with ‘White dot’ – a vibrantly surreal song such as only Peter Hammill can create, with layered backward vocals starting us down a road that has us riding a looped piano track and hanging on for all we’re worth as the tortured, unreal vocals sing of the mortal danger of an empty mind and life, of drifting through our time with no purpose or meaning. The end could come at any moment: ‘A time to think is now at a premium…though in the pink in every outward appearance, inside it’s white dot time’ – ‘white dot’ perhaps referring to the last vestige of light on a television screen when the power has been turned off. The arrangement brilliantly conveys pressure, the closing in of a threatening cacophony, the weight of life.

Peter’s output is staggering – between recordings issued under his own name, those made with Van der Graaf Generator, and ‘other projects’, they number an incredible 55 releases (which includes, as far as I can tell, only around 4 compilations of material released in other forms). All of this since 1969 – and he’s still (thankfully) going strong. His albums encompass a wide variety of styles, employing few or myriad instruments and voices, simple or unbelievably complex arrangements – but the quality of his art has never wavered. The listener can always expect music and lyrics that will intelligent and thought-provoking…sometimes even a bit of fun. Singularity continues a chain of creativity that I hope will continue for many years to come.
Sofa Sound (official Peter Hammill website)

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