If there is such a genre as dark country then Paul Handyside must be its master. His fourth solo album, Loveless Town, is deeply embedded in Americana but there are hints of the guitar sound he employed in his early days with Hurrah! Coming, as he does, from the north-east Paul doesn’t have the baggage that accompanies American country singers as this album amply proves – it has an essential Britishness.
The title track, which opens the set, employs all the country tropes: a slightly strained waltz time, slide guitar (it could be lap steel or Dobro or Weissenborn – all played by Rob Tickell over the course of the record), delicate acoustic guitar, keyboards and Paul’s rich, deep voice. The town in question could be Sacramento or Sunderland and that’s part of the attraction of the album. ‘Light Of My Life’ is a similarly country-laden plea to a potential life partner and is a lovely song.
Paul changes the mood with ‘Not In My Name’, which briefly starts like a hymn but quickly morphs into a savage attack on political leaders – the obvious target being the orange one but you could stretch a point and apply it to the buffoon. In stark contrast is ‘Only You’, a delicate but powerful love song, possibly also addressed to the recipient of ‘Light Of My Life’. It’s followed by ‘Lonesome Touch’, the song of a contented man addressing his thoughts to a lover.
‘Lord, Show Yourself’ is a plea for the whole world to have a change of heart – the rich and powerful and the broken and lost, equally. I know nothing of Paul’s religious beliefs so this could be the words of a committed Christian or a pained cry of desperation. I like the ambiguity.
‘Hartley Pit Catastrophe’ tells the true story of a Northumberland mine disaster in 1856 which killed more than two hundred men trapped below as the pit flooded and filled with carbon dioxide. Paul sings from the point of view of one of the trapped men; a deeply moving song remarkably lacking in anger. He drops back into his natural accent and performs mostly on acoustic guitar or unaccompanied and you know that he could make a damn fine album of mining songs if he wished.
‘New Frontier’ is clearly placed as a counterpoint as it looks forward to a better place and time. The final three songs take us back to story of a man looking for love. ‘Deepest Love’ could be a coda to ‘Loveless Town’, with rather less angst, and ‘Don’t Let Your Heart Be A Hotel’ is a warning against falling too easily. It is a clever lyric that evokes the bitterness of a break-up – sordid is the word that springs unbidden to mind. Finally, ‘Someone Like You’ finds the lonesome singer back on the road in the loveless town, resigned and ready to start again.
Loveless Town is a gritty album but repeated listening reveals contrasting moods and textures. The three musicians – David Porthouse being the third member of the trio – play seventeen instruments between them and make a big sound and no doubt Tickell’s production has a good deal to do with that.
Artist’s website: www.paulhandyside.com
‘New Frontier’ – live: