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Charles Hayward
Begin Anywhere Jamie Chambers , June 24th, 2019 08:59

Charles Hayward's new solo album, Begin Anywhere is disarming in its simplicity, but sometimes less is simply less, finds Jamie Chambers

I first heard Charles Hayward play ‘Watching You’, the first track of his new solo LP Begin Anywhere, at This is Not This Heat’s electrifying reunion show at the Barbican in 2017. Anticipating the full onslaught of ‘Horizontal Hold’, it was surprising and disquieting even when Hayward appeared first to play a ghostly, austere solo set; a stark, solitary presence alone at a piano. Used to hearing Hayward’s voice as the sole human emissary from within the strange, dissonant sonics of This Heat or Camberwell Now, it was confounding to hear his voice so bare, so vulnerable, so immediate.

Begin Anywhere is similarly disarming in its simplicity – a knife laid upon a white table cloth. Here, however the songs sadly lack the fierce focus they possessed live. There’s an undeniable pleasure in hearing one of British alternative music’s most closely-sketched, sharply-charactered voices situated in such stark surroundings, in intimate close-up. Begin Anywhere sees Hayward sing not from a thicket of tape loops, or a tumbling mass of drums, but from upon a bare, black stage, beneath a spotlight that at moments is all too painfully acute. Lacking the thrumming theatricality of Hayward’s presence in person – his hawkish, granite stare – Begin Anywhere works in fits and starts, frequently thriving in moments off the voluminous character of Hayward’s voice, whilst stumbling elsewhere before bare backdrops that simply haven’t been translated with sufficient care and precision into the closer confines of the stereo image.

The bravery of Begin Anywhere, in its naked vulnerability, will be unsurprising to anyone who has followed Hayward this far. Yet, often the chaos is conspicuous by its absence. Without it, the ears are drawn elsewhere, to more unflattering aspects of the music. The recording quality in particular – which all-too-faithfully relays the sound of pedals, the squeaking of piano seats, and the various clicks and shuffles of someone sitting at a piano – leaves something to be desired, frequently positioning the record as the awkward facsimile of a live performance. An exhilarating, febrile presence behind a drum kit, Hayward is not the most versatile pianist. Whilst there are welcome moments of variation – such as the triadic mantras of ‘Rattlesnakes’ or the creeping impressionism of ‘Unknown Unknowns’ – Begin Anywhere’s piano is largely blocky, blarty and at moments even clumsy – frequently stumbling through space that might have better been left empty for the considerable resonance of Hayward’s voice.

The songwriting (in places returning to lyrics from Hayward’s work with Camberwell Now) is never less than compelling, and at nine songs across forty minutes, Begin Anywhere doesn’t outstay its welcome. The songs are interesting and provocative throughout and at times catch fire into tantalising glimpses of what might have been, had a little more care been taken over the translation of Hayward’s in-person wiriness into a more tailored form on record. The organ and bass appearing midway into ‘Watching You’ help the song truly pick its feet off the ground, becoming both more and different to what it was live. Elsewhere, however, similar additions lack the same sense of careful placement and production value, the synths on ‘Safe as Houses’ and heart-beats on ‘The Camera, The Actor’ risking feeling somewhat perfunctory, tacked onto the album’s solitary aesthetic.

Much of Hayward’s best work over the past forty years has had the quality of Adorno’s ‘message in a bottle’; the sense of an uncanny, semi-inscrutable missive reverberating just outside our understanding. Here, whilst he seems to have as much to say as ever, the bottle sadly doesn’t quite make it to the shore. Less is frequently more, yes, but sometimes – unfortunately – less is simply less.