English witch trials. Seventeenth century folk songs. Provincial towns. Greasy cafes. The countryside. These are not, in all honesty, the kind of subjects to which readers of THE BOMBER JACKET are accustomed as their regular fix of razor-sharp, long-legged, firewater-guzzling tunes come sneaking into view under hype radar.
But what about fear, sex, xenophobia, love, capricious leaders and crumbling cities? We’re on stronger ground here, surely? Welcome to the world of Darren Hayman, a bespectacled Englishman who, as the frontman of British indie bad Hefner and then as a solo artist, has shepherded 14 albums of scratchy guitar music and folk-inflected chamber pop–as well as many more EPs, singles and one-off releases–into the world.
Unfortunately the world, apart from a coterie of obsessive and loving fans, has remained coldly unaware of his existence. It’s their loss. Hayman is one of those gimlet-eyed songwriter who can open up subjects that, on first glance seem dusty or just plain boring, uncovering their interesting corners and beguiling angles.
Pram Town (2009) is a bittersweet tribute to the decayed concrete towers of Harlow, one of the New Towns which sprang up across Britain in the 1950s as an attempt to rebuild post-war civic pride, while Table For One (2006) is a folk opera set based around a café in London. He’s another English bedsit poet, a more focused Ray Davies or a less aggrandizing Morrissey.
Tonight Hayman is playing songs from two of his recent albums, 2012’s The Violence and its companion piece Bugbears, released this month. It’s the first in a series of monthly shows at this tiny venue in east London and is, predictably, packed with Hayman die-hards, clustered around tiny tables and crammed into benches at the side of the hall.
The Violence, which chronicles the Witch Trials taking place in the east of England in the 17th century, has been acclaimed as a highlight of Hayman’s career so far. The album’s 20 songs give voice to the 300 or so women who were executed for witchcraft during the period by Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, set alongside pieces about King Charles I, Parliamentarian spies, and the Puritan mindset.
If it sounds academic, it isn’t. Hayman, perched on a stool with his spectacles at the end of his nose and his fringe flopping into his eyes, really gets inside his subject, with lyrics that aim for the heart, not the head. “I Will Hide Away” hits the mark, articulating the sheer terror those persecuted endured for being different.
Later, in the lovely, lilting “Henrietta Maria,” he sings as King Charles I, addressing his French Catholic bride, later exiled to France as the first Civil War hotted up. “You’re three times prettier than your portrait,” he croons, making the flaunting of the nation’s cash on what, basically, is an attempt by a posh Scots bloke to impress a French girl seem impossibly romantic.
Live, the songs are reworked slightly from the lush arrangements of the record, rearranged to suit a lineup of violin, piano, guitar, bass and drums. Dan Mayfield’s violin does a lot of the heavy lifting, picking out out beautifully simple melodic lines that complement Hayman’s voice and guitar. “Impossible Times” is a highlight, bass and drums beating an infeasibly cheery calypso rhythm as Hayman describes a a world torn with fear, hatred, suspicion and instability.
There are new songs too–three of them–from an as yet unreleased record. “I’m taking a break from the 17th century for this one,” says Hayman, “this album’s just about sex.” The song appears to be about doing the nasty in the open air in some marshland in the countryside.
Hayman had started the evening with a short set of 17th century folk songs drawn from Bugbears, his latest record, released this month. It’s perhaps not surprising that the later record feels somewhat slight in comparison to sustained achievement of The Violence. Nevertheless, performed as a three-piece, with guitar, banjo and violin, these tunes work better here than on record, acting as an effective prelude to the second half of the show.
Does this sound all rather… well, British? Why should anyone outside of the British Isles care about these Witch Trials, or the Civil War? Come to think of it, why should anyone not British care about Hayman’s work per se, with its grimy small towns, rainy holidays, swimming pools and cafés?
“I’m always looking for parallels,” says Hayman, and this cuts to the heart of it. Like “The Crucible” or “The Scarlet Letter,” The Violence forensically examines the hatred and intolerance of the past in order to shine a light on our own times.
Similarly, anyone who has ever experienced a broken heart, or felt the pangs of nostalgia for the way your home town used to be when you were growing up, can take shelter from Hayman’s songs, wrapping them like a blanket against the slings and arrows of an unsympathetic world.
Hayman finishes the show with another song about the supernatural, “The Sad Witch,” a crowd favorite from his old band Hefner. “She promised me three wishes / My only wish is / She would remain here,” he sings as the crowd bellows along, as if trying to put off the moment the song sputters out. And then it’s time for Hayman to do his own vanishing act, disappearing to the bar downstairs, leaving us wanting more, like a wizard, a true star.