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Darren Hayman & The Secondary Modern
Essex Arms Ralegh Long , November 4th, 2010 17:20

Essex Arms is the second in Darren Hayman's proposed trilogy of records about Essex. 2009's Pram Town got the ball rolling with its depiction of the hopes and frustrations embodied in the 'new town' of Harlow. Pram Town was a fine record, its songs brought to life by the sound of a home-grown folk-orchestra. However, it did raise some interesting questions about the relationship of Hayman's narrator to the lives of his characters. It was difficult to catch the narator's opinion of the girls in Harlow spending their days “trying to sing like Mariah." Sometimes it seemed a celebration, sometimes a critique. On one level, this ambivalence perfectly captured the duality of Hayman's subject (Harlow both as utopian social experiment and stifling concrete dormitory), but on another, it showed the inherent difficulty of depicting peoples' lives in song without recourse either to glamorization or critique. This is something of which Hayman himself is clearly well aware. In a recent interview for This is Fake DIY, he talked of his fears that reviewers would see Essex Arms as an album about '“Chav Britain"'. He continued - "there are just certain subject matters that make you wary, it makes me wary when I see middle class people write about these things."How would this pan out in the second and third records in the trilogy.

In Essex Arms, Hayman turns his attention to the wider county, and to the countryside. It opens impressively, getting straight to the point with a brooding track called 'Be Lonely', perfectly recorded in just the sort of unadorned way that one might expect of Hayman. You can hear all the gaps and spaces., and with piano and voice pushed to the fore, it's somehow reminiscent of tracks such as 'The pines' from the never-finished sixth Hefner album. Similarly, 'Be Lonely' emphasises the soulful side of Hayman's songwriting. It's intimate, honest and different to the more obvious charms of the English indiepop sound with which many would associate him. Sweeping pedal steels do justice to the idea of The Secondary Modern as an Anglicised Lambchop, and, interestingly, the further Hayman drifts toward this transatlantic sound, the keener his glances at England become. With this increase in soul comes an increase in folk; both in sound and lyrical approach. The best folk songs posit a translucent narrator – a neutral mouthpiece for the characters and stories. Writing about the countryside seems to have allowed Hayman to collapse the worlds of narrator and subject. In 'Two Tree Island' he sings from a first person aware not only of the “mud in [his] hair and clothes" but also of a widescreen mythology in which 'The Rayleigh boys' “will fuck up all of Southend" and “the Hadleigh marsh will tremble for the trains." That's a massive slice of modern English folk right there.

The album centres around 'Winter Makes You Want Me More' and 'Super Kings', in which the narrator recalls a girlfriend who used to put her high heels up on the dashboard and smoke the eponymous cigarettes. These are moving songs in their own right, but, more importantly, they perform the first part of a pincer movement, setting the scene of love and cars that is completed by the later tracks 'Drive Too Fast' and 'Plastic and Steel'. 'Drive Too Fast' tells the story of someone who does just that, is killed, and has their 'pillowcase [and] favourite coffee cup' taken as keepsakes by the narrator. Before the next track enters, we hear an echoed refrain of 'Winter Makes You Want Me More', which leads us back to the girl who smoked Super Kings and announces the extent to which, subtle though it is, this is a concept album. 'Plastic and Steel' delivers the album's emotional sucker punch, retelling the same car crash in slow motion."When your foot hit the brake / When you swerved far too late / When the glass shattered round your face / You were alive, you were alive". It's a shocking conclusion, played out against a haunting background of what sounds like synthesised oboe, and filled with arresting details, such as the snare drum that enters with the refrain "you were alive".

Essex Arms finds Hayman taking his time, slowing down in the middle of the trilogy, and somehow giving his subjects more weight. It's not easy listening, and for anyone hooked in by perky single 'Calling Out Your Name Again' it is going to be a challenge. However, if you've got a bit of patience, Essex Arms is an addictive slow-burner. Needless to say, the lyrics are first rate, even an improvement on those on Pram Town. Try “we burst the eardrums of sparrows and starlings and baby deer" or the watercolour precision of “the Coke cans fade to a pink that's almost white". And after a few spins the melodies start to seem, well, pretty perfect in their confident simplicity. Above all, it is a powerful, sustained work of imagination. This album is so deliberate, so well paced, its themes so rigorously intertwined that, despite the fact that I've never been too interested in 'story' records, I'm finding it hard to stop thinking about these islands, villages, people and cars. Perhaps, as Prefab Sprout once claimed, “some things hurt more than cars and girls". But not much more.