…all that might have been…
The last conversation I had on the subject of Peter Hammill, several years ago, was with the novelist Nick Hornby, who upbraided me for having cost him the price of an album when he decided to act upon my warm recommendation, in the pages of the Melody Maker, for an album by Hammill’s band, Van Der Graaf Generator. This was 1970, and Hornby was 13 years old. When he got the record home and listened to it, he wasn’t happy. The resentment seemed to have lingered, although I wouldn’t suggest that this is necessarily why we haven’t spoken since.
Now, almost four and a half decades since that ill-fated recommendation, I have another one for him, also involving Hammill. The singer has filled the intervening years with activity, most of it as a solo artist and songwriter. I can’t claim to have kept a close watch on his progress, meaning that his new record, …all that might have been…, arrives as all the more of a revelation.
The album came about while Hammill was trying to assemble lyrics to go with music that he’d been putting together himself, using notes that he’d made over a period of years. He realised that he could use these fragments of observed behaviour, sidelong glimpses collected during his time as a travelling musician, to create something he’d long wanted to achieve: a series of songs that could then be fractured and reassembled in an order that would make the narrative more elusive and suggestive — more “filmic”, to use his word.
…all that might have been… comes in three different CD forms. The first, titled the RETRO, contains the original instrumental sound beds: mostly synths, guitars, bass and a bit of percussion. The second, the SONGS, consists of the 10 basic compositions. The third, the CINÉ, is the finished 40-minute tapestry of 21 linked pieces, cut up and rearranged, most of them no more than two minutes long. You can buy the latter separately, or all three together in a box.
There’s a story of sorts to the full CINÉ version, although Hammill intentionally leaves it ambiguous. We know that a man and a woman are involved, and that the viewpoint is mostly male. We can work out that, after a certain amount of ecstasy and rather more anguish, nothing ends happily.
“I’ve never been one to like dogma or absolute linearity to be at the core of songs, and I’ve always been keen on the idea of ‘show not tell’,” he writes in a sleeve essay. He describes the result as “the flickering light of things half-seen and often only half-understood.”
I’ll buy that. It’s how, inside ourselves, some of us perceive our life in the world: as a barely coherent series of events, internal and external, on which we fail to impose order and whose meaning changes according to the light, with an inevitable existential loneliness at its core. Hammill’s voice finds the right tone, or series of tones: he’s often compared to Bowie, but although he can certainly declaim his range also encompasses the sort of sensitivity associated with the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan. His overdubbed backing vocals function as a Greek chorus: commenting, interrupting, supporting, contradicting.
The musical settings — mostly synths, occasional guitar, prowling bass, a sprinkling of percussion — ensure that the work never lapses into melodrama. There’s a lot of rubato but occasionally, as with “Inklings, Darling”, one of the two longer tracks, a light groove is allowed to settle. Hammill has been spending time in Japan recently, and perhaps you can hear the influence of kotos and shamisens from time to time, although never explicitly. The result is very spare, almost ambient, understated but nevertheless full of relevant incident: a partner rather than a soundtrack to the narrative. “He Turns Away”, the penultimate piece in the cycle (appearing in full as “Until” on the SONGS disc), is a thing of haunting beauty.
This feels like one of the big achievements of a long career. His devoted admirers will adore it, but it deserves a much wider audience. And if you don’t like this one, Nick, you can have your money back.
* …all that might have been… is available from Hammill’s website, sofasound.com, as a single disc or a 3CD box. My only reservation is that I wish the singer or his designer had made the lyrics more easily legible, rather than reversing them out of the photographs in the booklets that accompany the box set.