Darren Hayman & The Secondary Modern Darren Hayman & The Secondary ModernEssex Arms
The second part of the trilogy the former Hefner frontman intends to dedicate to his birthplace (Essex) is as charmingly sad as a strawberry ice cream left to melt on a park bench, or the last trip on a rollercoaster in ruins. Yes, “Essex Arms” should be sold with the label “fragile” clearly visible on the cover, because good old Darren seems to have packed all of the extremely sensitive material accumulated during his (in all probability) melancholy adolescence into these twelve songs. Some of them are crying out for a place to take shelter (the opener, “Be Lonely” , and its motto: “well, I can get used to being sad”), while others offer it ( “Winter Makes You Want Me More” is, simply, perfect, with it’s wooden dolls and timid efforts at begging you not to start crying again). And then there are those that gloriously pretend that happiness may overcome you at any moment (the single, a duet with Emmy The Great, is one of those songs you will never stop listening to: “Calling Out Your Name Again”).
Yes, all of this makes up Darren Hayman’s eleventh album. One in which he is once again accompanied by first-class musicians (who even play consoling mandolins), the Secondary Modern, and he goes much further than he ever has before (without a doubt, the album surpasses the first of the trilogy, the more sullen “Pram Town”), measuring itself against the best of Howe Gelb solo (the very Christmas y “Sno Angel Like You”), the latest from Eef Barzelay, and even the gloomier nostalgia of Chris Bathgate. At times, it livens up and seems like a Ron Sexsmith freed forever from being the clumsy (and ugly) boy of the class (in the exciting “Cocoa Butter”); he turns off the lights, lights up a cigarette, and gets up onstage in a small, poorly-lit abandoned club (the more than elegant “Dagenham Ford”); or he dusts off his old superhero comic books to listen to stupid conversations between guys with powers ( “Spiderman Beats Ironman” doesn’t hold a candle to “Waiting for a Superman” by The Flaming Lips, the Iron & Wine cover, but is almost there).
However, there’s more. There are bicycle thieves that are Darren himself in shorts (and from another period) in the album’s most painfully sad cut ( “Super Kings”), and ex-girlfriends who aren’t forgotten and become the lightest song (and the most urban folk one, a label that Hayman’s solo production moves under) of the album ( “Nothing You Can Do About It”). It’s decidedly a good album, and yes, it’s sad, but it’s a kind of sadness that doesn’t hurt because it already hurt once, when you were only a girl or boy and you thought that the world ended with the summer’s last ice cream. And capturing this (exactly: the nostalgia of a past that wasn’t better, but it just was, and at times it was even worse) in an album is like capturing birds in cages—not easy at all. So thanks, Darren.