Thematically speaking, you never quite know what you’re going to get from a Darren Hayman record. There was the sprawling concept album about the Essex witch trials (2012’s The Violence), the collection of William Morris rhymes put to music (Chants For Socialists from earlier this year) or the cheap but exhilarating thrill rides into the heart of modern Essex, urban and rural (Pram Town, 2009; Essex Arms, 2010). So it is almost something of a surprise to find him releasing a solo album of mostly acoustic and generally simple songs with no overarching theme other than the fact that they were all written and recorded in Florence, the city that gives the record its name.
This lack of concept has enabled Hayman to go back to the universal motifs of love and loss that served him so well as the frontman of indie favourites Hefner. And we’re glad to report that he’s right back on the money from the word go. First track Nuns Run The Apothecary turns a stream of mundane details into something inexplicably heartbreaking, with little but a softly strummed guitar as an accompaniment. This is Hayman’s gift – the ability to elevate the quotidian to heights that are almost sacred. This might also explain (if only in part) why religion has played such a distinct role in his lyrics.
And then there is Break Up With Him. Here the dirty minutiae of relationships takes the place of gentle religious overtones of the first track – it’s the old one-two sucker punch, the bait and switch, the sacred superseded by the seedy – but it’s worked for Hayman for twenty years and it still works now. Here the effect is heightened by a tinny drum machine and a slightly distorted electric guitar.
From The Square To The Hill is, to paraphrase EM Forster, Florence with no Baedeker, the narrator imploring his companion to ‘walk and then stop when we get bored.’ It’s like a Lonely Planet guide for the genuinely lonely, where all cities are the same, and the populations are all engaged in the same personal struggles.
Profanity often nestles up to profundity in the space of a single track, or even a couple of lines. When You’re Lonely Don’t Be – simultaneously resigned and optimistic – is typical Hayman in this respect, while On The Outside is just the singer with a fingerpicked acoustic guitar. It is deceptively simple, and contains the heart of the album’s feeling – ‘treasuring the small things we know’
Hayman is no virtuoso, musically speaking, and knows how to make his shortfalls into advantages. The arrangements on Florence are uncluttered compared with some of his recent work, showcasing the lyrics and the softer but no less idiosyncratic singing style he has adopted since the rawer, punkier Hefner days. In Didn’t I Say Don’t Fall In Love With Him restrained electric backing masks (or perhaps helps to create) melancholy. It builds slowly, the multi-tracked vocals of the refrain commenting on a failing relationship like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. Post Office Girl sees Hayman go all meta on our asses. You think it’s going to be one of those character songs that he does so well like The Librarian or She Can’t Sleep No More, but it does something altogether different and more personal, with the simplest and prettiest of backings, all programmed drums and twinkling keyboard.
Safe Fall, meanwhile, is more like one of those character songs, only with the narrator at a distance. It is the saddest and most muted moment on a sad and muted record, but is nevertheless not without optimism, and leads perfectly into final track The English Church: a gentle, wordless meditation, a sigh in the form of a song. It is a surprising way to end an album from a performer who puts so much emphasis on lyrics, but Hayman has made a career out of surprising his listeners, and Florence – cutting and pretty, grubby and sexy – is one of his best surprises yet.
Review by: Thomas Blake