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Darren Hayman And The Long Parliament
The Violence Marc Burrows , November 9th, 2012 11:14

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"I don't know, and I don't want to know, if she floats or drowns" wrote Darren Hayman on Hefner's ‘The Sad Witch', a decade later he's returning to the subject for The Violence, a concept album based around seventeenth century Essex witch trials and the English Civil war.

As concepts go it's not as odd a choice as you might think. Leaving aside allegorical links to the present day, intended or otherwise (society deeply divided on religious lines, the effect of terror and paranoia on ordinary people, "witch hunts") Hayman's gift is to find the human stories amid the history. The backdrop may be a war-torn country in crisis, but the focus is always on the personal. The ill-fated King Charles himself narrates 'Henrietta Maria', but it's not the battle hymn of a king on the march, it's a love song, a tribute to his catholic Queen for whom he had "cut the British Isles in half so she could pray" and who was "three times prettier than her portrait". The witches at the core of the record are frightened women who are "just outsiders", even the witch finders and mobs have an innocence, believing they're doing God's work singing "we are not evil". Later the same melody returns as the accused, voiced by hushed female voices, answer "we are not witches".

Hayman never shies from the grim reality of his subject, and lyrically he is on best-ever form. The record begins with a stark, brutal description of hanging, "bark tears tissue, bones crack, crumble and fracture" while "veins burst and turn your skin purple, blue and yellow". These words that could come from Nine Inch Nails' Downward Spiral, or the Manics' Holy Bible contrast directly with the very pastoral, very English folk that forms the musical base of the record - the melody is lilting, verging on jolly. It's done with a fair dollop of wit as well, 'Elizabeth Clarke' uses the creak and sway of the gallows for percussion as a doomed old lady ponders "who's going to feed my dog, who's going to pray the rain away, who's going to pull on my ankles when I'm swinging?"

The whole album is a lament, a tragedy taking place in "impossible times", and to Hayman there are no real winners - excellent liner notes are included giving each song historical context, the last thing they note is that "nobody went to heaven, or hell. They just died." It's heartbreaking stuff, but Hayman's touch is astonishingly light - these are wonderful pop songs, each a compacted treasure of melody and heart. 'Arthur Wilson's Reverie' the notes tell us, is about a man who sees "beauty where others saw ugliness", it applies equally to Hayman himself- "pretend that you're flying" he sings to one of the most beautiful melodies here, "swing gently with the wind as I tug upon your feet".

Autumnal, witty, sad, lovely and very, very English The Violence is the high watermark of Hayman's career and one of the finest British releases of 2012, a record that neither floats, nor drowns, but soars.