Since releasing Great Novels two years ago, Hartland has gained both a beard and a new band: bassist Marko Miletic, percussionist, producer and arranger Sean Lloyd and, from local electro pop outfit Grand Valise, providing synths, keys, guitars and backing vocals, Andy Miles and Becky Pickin introducing non-acoustic instrumentation for a sound that, while retaining his lyrical and melodic focus, marks a shift away from earlier folksier stylings.
Recorded during the pandemic with themes of muddling through, finding ways out of difficulty, trying to make sense of things and who you are in the new normal, in the scampering jazzy Paul Simon-esque title track he sings how people “turn their faces each and every way” in a world of confusion (“Watch the dial spin while/We each of us just run to reach the ball/If we only knew/The other’s point of view”).
Opening with backwards tape and taking a loping, fingersnapping swing rhythm that again conjures Simon (here Hearts And Bones era), ‘Entropy’ continues along a similar vein (“How when that egg is broken/You can’t put the pieces back/Disorder is a constant…So you stick to your way/And I’ll stick to mine; /And we’ll agree both not to notice/All the ways they might align”) and “the ease that isolation tends to bring”. But, good news, “The process is reversible…The decline into disorder/Can be managed if not slowed” as he throws in a reference to Gulliver’s Travels (“So here’s my undertaking/And with luck it’s also yours:/Let’s treat this ovoid gingerly/And avoid Blefuscan wars”).
A lazy, late night blues, ‘Midnight Ride’ addresses the disorientation of changes (“Thought we’d be fine across the state line/But we just got burned” as, in easy mellow manner with upright bass colouring the mood, he sings “I came in from New England, boys;/Never thought I’d make it this far west/But the winds that blow come fast and slow:/Tacking either way, never anchored/in place, finding hope alone’s no place to rest” and “Not recognising old friends and places/I thought I might have once have known/Wondering how to get back to the now/I thought I’d always have as my own”.
Edging towards the six-minute mark, the equally laid back, dreamy, slow waltzing ‘3 Days Since 5 Minutes Ago’ speaks of hope in the midst of apparent collapse (“Yeah everything ain’t gonna be all right/Everything will cave in over night/Yeah, everything ain’t gonna be all right/Well, consensus dissolves like mist/But certainties persist/That’s the nature of faith/
And as all that is solid just melts/All that’s left are the things that you’ve felt/They’re more precious than anything”), his voice soaring to falsetto for the memorable line that “the past was just now with better clothes”.
Itchily percussive with synth snickering and a Latin rhythm, in ‘Cast A Coin’ the symbols found on maps become a metaphor in a love song (“If every map includes a key/By which anyone can see/How the land lies/Then you’re the one to mine”) that somehow made me think of ‘Gentle On My Mind’ were it sung by Nilsson.
The second half leads off with the uptempo swaying ‘Crestview’, painting a portrait of suburban life (“It’s homecoming in Crestview;/The kids will dress like adults tonight.
For many of them, it’ll be their peak – Crestview don’t see much excitement, but/It’s queen will be crowned tonight/Her renown won’t last forever/But that’s all right”) and the resignation to disappointments in love (“She’ll meet a boy and fall in love/And for a moment, they’ll pretend/But then she’ll hit twenty/And repent”) as, on a note of regret, he sings “I wish that I could be there/Just to hold your hand/But we both know/That’s never gonna happen”) ending on the ineffably sad “I’ll sit at home, old and stoic/Writing stupid songs for you/For you and for the homecoming”.
Keeping the musical mode swinging, vibes and guitar flutters a go go, ‘Remain’ (“‘Cause after all these years of thinking/I could stand a change/Oh darlin’/I find I’d rather just remain”) has another infectious jazzy Simon-like groove, getting all Shakespearean in the lines “For who would fain maintain/That they were no part of the main?/Or to be clod washed to sea/Or for that bell to tell for thee?” In fact, you could imagine Bobby Darin singing this.
Another observational snapshot (“There’s a woman at the station/And she pushes every day/A buggy with a baby made of clay… And the vicar in the sweater/And the scholar in the gown/Swirl past her and above her and around”), ‘Gloucester Green’ (a market square in Oxford) has another jazzy swirl to its rhythm, rasp-edged guitar punctuating the mood, and a lyric about encouragement to stay the course (“Stay in the lane that you started in/Don’t risk the time it takes to stray/Eyes on the prize not on the views from the sidings, now/You learn by moving forward not away”).
He’s on epic form with the quietly shimmering opening, slow building ‘The Rise’, a gospel country blues counter to defeatism in the wake of passing years (“What did we do with them?
We just got a couple years older or so”) with its defiant resolution of “I’ve seen enough suns set – let’s stay up past the rise” and a wish to rebuild burned bridges (“doesn’t it seem/That you coulda been there for me?/And oh no isn’t it true/That I coulda come home to you?”).
And so it ends with the slow marching, muted ambience of ‘Ravenna’ and its downbeat conclusion that “the new world’s gone the /same way as the old:/Parcelled out and fenced around and bought and sold/As the landlords crown their king/With the vultures circling/The tenants pay the rent bill all the same” where “The mother bites the hand that feeds the fold/And the orphan puts a penny in her bowl/As the world turns upside down/And the foxes chase the hounds/The trumpets sound the septet all the same” and the inevitability that whatever way the wheel turns “the axle will snap sometime all the same”.
Given the current state of the UK’s broadcast media, it’s frustratingly hard to see how this will reach the ears of those with more sophisticated musical tastes that look for more than an instant fix (perhaps Jazz FM were it inclined to look beyond established names), but for anyone who owns a copy of Simon’s ‘In The Blue Light’ or ‘One Trick Pony’ this will make a superb addition to the collection.
Artists’ website: www.danhartland.com
The first single, ‘Cast A Coin’ – official video: