Van Der Graaf Generator mainman Peter Hammill has always been a survivor, not just in overriding and outlasting musical fads and trends throughout the decades but also in keeping the faith (and his own personal sanity and integrity). Most notably despite a scary major health issue around 15 years ago, since which time he’s produced some of his best work, in the shape of a series of fine solo records, from Singularity by way of Thin Air and Consequences and right up to latest album From The Trees. This new set might well be counted among his most accessible, not least in that it’s simply scored, also in that each of its ten tracks is pretty concise by VdGG standards (clocking in at under six minutes); “all of them are on the shorter end of things and generally conventional – as close to conventional as I get – in form”, he says. Yet at the same time, there’s no shortchanging in intensity of expression (either lyric-wise or vocally) and no attempt to shirk or underplay the desperate import of the lyrics which deal realistically, and (though sometimes duly reflectively) often quite bitterly angrily, with aspects of mortality, in particular the onset of old age.
Mindful of the fact that Peter will turn 70 later in 2018, there’s no cheap or rosy-tinted “when I’m 64” nostalgia trip here, nor clichéd wistful portrayal, but instead a telling exposition of the mindset and process of “the third act of life”, shot through with realism and certainly no self-pitying. The individual songs examine, through the eyes (and minds) of the different characters who “pave their fretful way through” the songs, the experience of “facing up to or edging in towards twilight”, by taking a clear-sighted (even dispassionate) look back at what has been, indeed also “all that might have been”, before postulating what might be or will be. It could be said too, then, that From The Trees is a concept album, in that a common theme throughout the songs is that of realisation – invariably taking the form of anagnorisis (the tragedian’s term for the moment of a character’s sudden discovery of the true nature of the situation). That word could, I suspect, easily have given the album its title, were it not for its academic obscurity and evident awkward spelling – but it does furnish a title (and key word) for a central track in the sequence, which contains the chillingly apt statement “the shaking in his hand is a sign-off: goodbye and not hello” (which in itself is probably nothing less than a revelation).
Thematically, the new songs contain the familiar Hammill preoccupations, as developed and viewed from his latest temporal perspective. For instance, on Girl To the North Country we encounter anew the impact of an irretrievable lost love (one that pervaded most of PH’s 1977 album Over) – now it’s almost just a case of “And just like that she’s gone …”. The clangorous disbelieving psychodrama of My Unintended that opens proceedings gives way to the uneasy Satie-esque piano waltz of Reputation, which explores what can happen when the cult of personality is stripped away, a reflection that’s continued on into Charm Alone and Milked, the latter’s thespian experiences and future aspirations killed off by lost love. The perverse melodic near-beauty of Torpor provides the backdrop for Peter’s bleak, knowing vision of the encroaching inertia of old age. This mirrors the two preceding songs: the unrelieved negativity of What Lies Ahead and, even more poignantly, the fragile and now helpless protagonist undergoing his own personal Anagnorisis. Perhaps the most intense catastrophe of old age is brought on in the album’s closing stages, with the desperation of the most cast-adrift and, musically, queasily discordant track On Deaf Ears (where nobody is listening) mollified (kindof) by the delicate passivity of The Descent which conveys the inevitable loss of physical powers as old age bears down, finally (gently) choking you with its smooth string-synth chording.
Without for one moment harbouring any accusations of derivativeness, I could observe that in From The Trees I’m bound to hear post-echoes of earlier Peter Hammill works. Something about Girl To The North Country took me back to listening afresh to VdGG’s The Least We Can Do Is To Wave To Each Other, where I was struck by both the telling vulnerability and hauntingly ambiguous idealism pervading Refugees, while Girl TTNC’s initial acoustic guitar motif somehow put me in mind of the guitar figure that opens After The Flood.
Such incidental (and possibly fanciful) personal observations may well ultimately count for nowt in the scheme of things, though, except perhaps to reinforce the strong impression the new album gives of an auteurial vision. Literally too, for this entails Peter playing (and singing) all the parts by means of textural overdubbing of the core piano or guitar with supportive guitars and a central spine of bass, synth and string washes. And, possibly more crucially, with his own now-trademark layered backing-vocals. These function rather like the Greek Chorus of classical tragedy, an alien, ageless chorale comprising a variable number of voices, one that’s curiously disturbing. Sometimes in unison behind the main voice, sometimes in harmony with it; insistent, sometimes sounding almost disembodied and more than slightly menacing, sometimes lushly crooning and almost soothing. Thereby presenting a unified single voice.
From The Trees is hardcore Hammill at its very best and most penetratingly insightful: an album of often scarily intense intimacy, presented as a compelling song-cycle of ten revealing Lieder. Pretty much a masterpiece IMHO.
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