Darren Hayman’s 2009 album “Pram Town” was centred on the Fifties New Town Harlow (Hayman grew up in nearby Brentwood). 2010’s “Essex Arms” broadens its scope to the Essex countryside as the second part of a planned trilogy about Hayman’s home county. As well as broadening its geographical focus, the new album is a musical growth from its predecessor. The gentle ruminative indie-folk of “Pram Town” was frequently nostalgic and occasionally tentative. Here the assorted ukuleles, banjos, mandolins, and guitars of Hayman and The Secondary Modern - augmented by members of Allo Darlin’, Fanfarlo and The Wave Pictures - sounds truly fully fledged, an able and assured folk-orchestra.
Lyrical references to car factories, woods, marshes, the Thames estuary and Southend are all here but never dominate. The real landscape of the record is the one defined by its inhabitants. People in the songs are never named – and it may even be a small cast of characters re-appearing across the dozen songs - but given the emotionally direct first-person singing of Hayman and his astute eye-for-detail lyrics they are never half-drawn or shadowy. In fact I’d challenge you to find more honest, tender and believable love songs in 2010 than 'Winter Makes Me Want You More' or 'Super Kings'. Even where the protagonists are flawed or cruel - the love-hate bickering of ‘Calling Out Your Name’ or 'I’ll Be Your Alibi' (“let’s do what dogs do, love with tongue and fight with tooth”) – or engaged unsavoury nocturnal activities (dog-fights, joy-riding, car-park sex), Hayman treats them with a humanity that borders on affection.
And it all sounds gorgeous to the ear. Whether quieter solo pieces (‘Super Kings’), the upbeat skiffle duet with Emmy The Great (‘Calling Out Your Name’) or the full-band numbers, all sound warm-hued and delicately orchestrated. And the little touches sometimes make songs. Initial listens to single 'Two Tree Island' left me thinking it was a weak link stretched to nearly seven minutes long. On further plays I’m hooked on the narcotic beauty of the languid pedal steel guitar and its simple yearning for escape to the point where I don’t want it to end.
“Essex Arms” is a record that never feels hemmed in by geography or by nostalgia (despite references to cream soda, top trumps and “you look like the lesbian from Brookside"). It may not have the anxious outsider feel of certain early Hefner songs and Hayman does sound at his most confident and relaxed but this doesn’t equate to cosy. As the liner notes say “beneath the hedgerow and honeysuckle lie rusted barbs and broken glass”.
This may well be what indiepop sounds like when it grows up but it’s not a dull ‘mature’ record. Instead it’s the sound of a songwriter – and a singer –stretching their idiom, growing in self-assurance and reaching a new place. If “Pram Town” was trying on a new (Fifties) two-piece suit for size, “Essex Arms” is assuredly wearing the made-to-measure replacement: impeccable hand-finishing and detail, timeless style and a handsome fit. Suits you sir. This is the most cogent, confident and consistent album Darren Hayman has made - and could well be his best. Yes - it’s that good.
Spiderman Beats Ironman - Darren Hayman & The Secondary Modern
Darren Hayman & The Secondary Modern Essex Arms [BUY or BUY]