Peter Hammill’s ‘From the Trees’
As skinny as a bread-stick, his white hair cropped almost back to his skull, an outfit of loose white shirt and trousers giving him (somewhat deceptively) the austere, elevated air of a Zen monk, Peter Hammill took the stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last Friday with only a grand piano and an acoustic guitar for company. He was welcomed by an audience which recognised that at this stage of a 50-year journey that started with the rock band Van Der Graaf Generator, he is one of the few members of his generation who still has something to say.
It’s always intrigued me why, despite its post-war outpouring of great popular music, Britain has produced so few male singer-songwriters to rank alongside Jacques Brel, Lucio Dalla, Paolo Conte, Julien Clerc, Leonard Cohen or Randy Newman in terms of maturity, wisdom, observational gifts, craft skills and performing character. I think it’s because so many of the potential candidates came up in bands, and retained that mentality even in their solo careers, continuing to make records that very successfully put a concentration on musical (instrumental) style and content on an equal level with songwriting substance — as David Bowie did, for instance.
There have been exceptions. Paul Buchanan is one. Hammill is another, writing what might be called art songs and recording them in way that pays no attention to anything other than the songs’ demands. On his new album, From the Trees, recorded and mixed by himself at his own West Country studio, he contributes all the instruments (keyboards, guitars, bass guitar) and vocals (lead and backing), deploying his resources with fastidious restraint. There’s an exact understanding of what is needed at all times and an instinct for diversity, from the wonky minuet of “Reputation” and the pensive chorale of “What Lies Ahead” to the opening synth cloud and swooning clustered voices of “On Deaf Ears”, the folk-rocky electric guitar of “My Unintended” and the chiding Greek chorus of “Anagnorisis”.
Each lyric repays attention: literate, plain-spoken even when taking an oblique approach, never remotely pretentious (I had to look up “anagnorisis”, but was glad I’d bothered). The degree of autobiographical essence doesn’t matter, although the songs have the stamp of felt emotions, of a man addressing his own doubts and imperfections, his own perceptions of fate and mortality. I might be forgiven for following the clue in the title of “Girl to the North Country” towards the inevitable conclusion that this poignant song was inspired by Bob Dylan and his early muse, Echo Hellstrom, whose death was reported back in January.
The best of all comes last: “The Descent”, a work of quiet but intense drama dealing, I think, with the long-term consequences of auspicious beginnings and missed chances (or possibly something else altogether). But, anyway, it’s a thing of great elegance and beauty, its verses alternating bars of 4/4 and 3/4 to build tension before the cadence of the line smoothes out, with a strong vocal flighted in its finished studio version on piano, organ and Mellotron-like sampled strings. Correctly placed in the running order, it resonates long after the music has stopped.
At the newly refurbished QEH, Hammill ranged through the repertoire assembled through his long career, moving from piano to guitar and back, with great care taken at the mixing desk to enhance the immediacy of the sound of both instruments. His singing was highly wrought in its changes of volume and attack, as it used to be with VDGG, and well tailored to each song. Circumstances meant that I could only stay of an hour, but of the older material I was particularly struck by “Like Veronica” (from None of the Above, 2000), possibly inspired by the abused Kim Basinger character in Curtis Hanson’s movie of James Ellroy’s L. A. Confidential (“Wear your hair like Veronica Lake / And the bruises won’t show where he hit you”: the brutality of the lyric matched by the delivery). And most of all by an exquisite “Time to Burn” (from In a Foreign Town, 1988), a meditation on temps perdu much stronger for being shorn of the trappings of its original arrangement.
“The world has gone IKEA,” Hammill told Nick Hasted in an interview for the Independent in 2004, “and I’m a bespoke furniture maker. Not selling many, and only to people who find me.” They’re the lucky ones.
* The photograph of Peter Hammill is by James Sharrock. From the Trees is released on Hammill’s own label, Fie! (www.sofasound.com).
The QEH show was astounding. For music so intense and requiring such a level of attention, it was remarkable how riveting it was. 90 minutes (plus an encore) flew by. I felt quite deflated, for a moment, when he called it a night. Other highlights, which I think were after you left, Richard, were the VDGG classic La Rossa on guitar, with an intensity to rival a full band version, and the final clutch of “I’ll finish with one of the earliest and one of the most recent”. He launched into Refugees from the 1970 album The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other followed by The Descent, which like you, he also recognises as “one of those that arrives and you know it’s a really good one”.
I remember as a kid trekking out to the Virgin Warehouse in the early 70s (was it somewhere in west London?), when it was still just a mail order outfit, to get a copy of Aerosol Grey Machine which I hadn’t been able to find anywhere else. A rather nonplussed receptionist asked me what kind of music it was, and even then I was stumped, and have continued to be so. I still find something absurd in the grandeur of his music and performance, which occasionally makes me self conscious for liking it in the first place. Even the relentless lack of humour I find comforting; a Hammill performance always makes me smile. And I still think that Plague of Lighthouse Keepers is one of the best things to play when stuck in traffic. Really looking forward to seeing him in Cambridge next week, when I shall go as always slightly puzzled and will remain so again.
Peter Hammill . From Vandergraff Generator – to his solo work – to his album with Gary Lucas to his most current effort . What a dark , thoughtful , creative genius ! Here’s hoping Mr Hammill choses to grace our shores ( US ) with a few live performances
But to your list of male UK singer/songwriters might I add your David Sylvian who in his later years has matured into one of the most innovative singer/songwriters since our Scott Walker :especially his album ” Manafon “
I thought of Sylvian too. “Manafon” is an astonishing recording
I’ve followed the career of Hammill and VDGG ever since reading your glowing review of “The Least We Can Do….” in MM 48(!) years ago (possibly the very review that Nick Hornby once – misguidedly – reprimanded you about). Never an easy listen but without fail each of his many solo albums yields up at least one absolute gem. Good to see that he’s still cutting it live too.
Peter Hammill’s QEH show last Friday was indeed exceptional – I also saw him give an equally memorable performance a few months ago in the more intimate surroundings of the Cafe Oto; spellbinding.
Another fine songwriter and singer – and guitarist – from these shores that I have a high regard for is Richard Hawley.
Lucio Dalla and Julien Clerc are new names to me, I’m afraid, but if they are referenced in the same sentence as Randy Newman and Leonard Cohen I should clearly investigate further. But where to start? They both seem to have vast back catalogues.