Jack Hayter – Abbey Wood
Gare du Nord – 23 March 2018
Jack Hayter was always the quiet one. In the decade and a half since Hefner called it quits, frontman Darren Hayman has released prodigiously, at the rate of pretty much one solo album a year, plus countless collaborations. Drummer Ant Harding went solo even before Hefner disbanded and has a slew of albums and EPs to his name. Hayter, on the other hand, has picked a more circuitous route through the recent musical landscape. His only previous solo album, at least in the conventional sense, was 2002’s excellent and hugely underrated Practical Wireless. Since then he has dabbled in high-concept musical storytelling (Flashes and Occultations, 2017) and released twelve singles over a twelve-month period (The Sisters of St. Anthony, begun in 2012).
As a result, despite the sixteen intervening years, Abbey Wood feels like a natural follow-up to his debut. Hayter’s voice has matured in the best way – careworn, smoky and earthy, with the occasional crack like twigs underfoot – and his skill with an acoustic guitar is quietly virtuosic: witness the assured Roy Harper meets Bert Jansch plucking of opening track The Mulberry Tree At Abbey Wood (featured in a recent FRUK show here). But this being Hayter, Abbey Wood is more than a collection of urban folk songs. He has an artist’s eye for detail, and a humanitarian approach to songwriting which comes across in every song, giving the album a thematic coherence without it ever seeming overly conceptual. The loose theme centres around the darker corners of London, and the people who inhabit those corners. Fanny On The Hill is like something from a Hogarth print, the perfect antidote to the trendy gin bars taking over gentrified London.
Arandora Star is a tender hymn to a wartime troop ship sunk by U-boats in 1940. The grisly detail of bodies washed up on the west coast of Ireland is handled with dignity and there is a quiet, burning anger at the heart of the resignation. At Crossness Pumping Station is an impressionistic psychogeographical study tinged with personal sadness. The filth that fills the song is somehow rendered beautiful by the human element at its heart. Bigger Than The Storm further explores the human narrative and the epiphany of electric guitar towards the end is like a light shining through fog – the overall effect of these two songs is not unlike that of Monet’s paintings of the Thames.
Hayter could easily be placed in that long line of slightly eccentric English singer-songwriters that also includes Robyn Hitchcock, Ray Davies, Robert Wyatt, Andy Partridge – all writers acutely tuned in to their physical surroundings. Indeed, the minute-long Teasemaid is touching and silly in a way that Davies would be proud of. Mrs Mainwaring adds modernist soundscapes and crunching guitars to a kitchen-sink tale of faded memories, and This Stranger Fair evokes a faded fairground (and examines its own status as a metaphor) on a pillow of piano, steel guitar and gentle electronica.
Abbey Wood is an unmitigated triumph. Clever and heartfelt, it inverts folk tropes by presenting historical narratives in extremely personal ways (as on Arandora Star, or another wartime tale, I Sent My Love To Bendigo), or by creating finely-observed urban backgrounds where the more personal songs can play out. Hayter’s haunted, haunting voice holds it all together and makes it fabulously unique. It will be a shame if we have to wait another sixteen years for the next instalment.