Some time in the future, academics will pore over the ways people found to make music despite the restrictions imposed during the various lockdowns. But there are things that don’t need the benefit of time to provide perspective. The knowledge that Peter Hammill’s In Translation was created in cruel and unusual circumstances may increase his listeners’ admiration, but its quality transcends such considerations.
Coming 50 years after the release of his first solo release, Fool’s Mate, in the summer of 1971, this is Hammill’s covers album, with a difference. Only three of the songs — “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”, “This Nearly Was Mine” and “I (Who Have Nothing)” — are likely to be well known to the Anglophone audience. The remainder are either Italian pop songs or melodies by classical composers with lyrics translated by Hammill. It’s the measure of the strength of his artistic character that the whole thing has the unity of a song cycle.
Working in his Wiltshire studio, he weaves his own guitars and keyboards together with samples to create orchestrations that are full of interesting textures — complementary and contrasting — while retaining a sense of economy and intimacy, finding common ground between material plucked from seemingly divergent sources. Perhaps the best way of putting it is that he creates a emotional microclimate within which songs as different as “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” and Gustav Mahler’s “Lost to the World” can thrive together.
Hammill’s vocal style, with its clear diction, complete absence of blues inflections and occasional use of a pronounced vibrato, has always emphasised the closeness of his music’s spirit to that of European art song, from the Weimar cabaret music of Kurt Weill to the chanson of Jacques Brel, filtered through the sensibility of British musicians who served their apprenticeships in the second half of the 1960s. You can hear this tendency at its most declamatory on “Ballad for My Death”, whose melody is by the tango master Astor Piazzolla but could easily be by Brel. Hammill dials back the drama on other songs, such as Fabrizio de Andre’s “Hotel Supramonte” and Gabriel Fauré’s “After a Dream”, that might have been submerged by similar treatment.
“The Folks” and “This Nearly” are songs he grew up with, so he’s not going to poke fun at their 1950s sentiments. He takes them seriously, delivering them in his ardent English semi-croon, relishing their shapely contours and allowing listeners to make up their own minds about what the lyrics represent. “I (Who Have Nothing)” comes with drama built in: you either sing it that way or you don’t sing it at all, and Hammill’s version adds a shadow second vocal to emphasise what he calls the song’s “somewhat creepy nature”, as well as the hallucinatory sound of a mellotron (I think) and a paranoid electric guitar.
Perhaps the most striking arrangement of all is provided for Piero Ciampi’s “Il Vino”, a late-night drinking song that sways to synthesised strings, a cheap organ and glockenspiel. Its finale reminded Hammill of Nino Rota and thus of a “Fellini-esque aesthetic” which, he thinks, suffuses the whole project.
In Translation is an exceptional album: warm, approachable, and betraying no sense of the isolation in which it was created. Rather the reverse, as Hammill suggests when, in his notes, he remarks that, as well as the coronovirus, he had Brexit on his mind while he was making it. “Now the free travel around Europe which has been such a feature, pleasure and education in my adult life has ended,” he writes, “and all the benefits of cultural exchange are gone with it. I wouldn’t have been able to approach or understand many of these songs without that experience and to lose it is piteous.” It’s hard to believe that one day, when our corner of the world has come to its senses, those borders will not be open again.
* Peter Hammill’s In Translation is released today on the Fie! label: http://www.sofasound.com. The photograph is from the album cover and was taken by James Sharrock.