It’s been a funny ol’ time to box up my post-grad crap and scuttle back to the Essex badlands. Pockets empty, future blurry - nothing much on the horizon apart from that dirty-dog stretch of Estuary doing its everything to desperately tart up what God gave it and make people forget that all they can really see is Kent’s scuffed hinterlands and a giant, pulsing, whooping-cough cock of a smokestack. Funny, that is, musically speaking. Firstly, John Cooper Clarke was playing at a local pub. To put this in context, it’s sort of like finding something really good amongst lots of things that are really shit. Then, local rag The Evening Echo gave their front page over to the news that Wilco Johnson had bagged a role on the HBO backed Game Of Thrones, before The Guardian topped this by running a sizable feature on These New Puritans in which Hidden is rightly offered up as ‘perhaps the most remarkable album by a British band this year’. AND THEN, as if that wasn’t exciting enough, Darren Hayman releases the second part of his proposed Essex trilogy with Essex Arms, the follow up to 2009’s painfully wonderful and horrendously undervalued ‘Pram Town’. It’s almost enough to make a sick-of-home lad proud.
Before even a note is played, a short passage on the back of the sleeve acts as an evocative overture to Hayman’s heartfelt folk-opera. ‘Welcome to Essex countryside. Beneath the hedgerow and honeysuckle lie rusted barbs and broken glass. There are dogfights in the forest, joyrides past the cornfields, romance inside Vauxhall Novas. Here we find true love’. Which is quite perfect, really, and gets to the very heart of the album in a beautiful beat. Equally, my use of the highly dubious phrase ‘folk-opera’ just then, brings to mind this year’s across-the-board-adored ‘folk-opera’ (it’s getting worse, isn’t it… I won’t say it anymore), Hadestown by Anais Mitchell. You could easily talk about the mismatched state of this juxtaposition - the term should perhaps be applied more loosely to Essex Arms in comparison to the more structured Hadestown, but it was either this or call it a… [clears throat]… ‘concept album’. Certainly the grand nature of Hadestown’s love affair stands in sharp contrast to Darren Hayman’s funny little record about Essex and its lovers, not fit for legend, littering their car floors with crumpled packets of Marlboro light and layers of McDonalds wrappers that act as insulation on winter trips to Lakeside.
But the nature of this album shouldn’t allow it to be waved away, or appreciated, even, merely as a small and quaint record in contrast to the supposed weight of something more overtly epic like Hadestown. Because the music on Essex Arms is an elegant and delicately nuanced acoustic patchwork, enveloping and so lovingly crafted… Some of its tales might be stained nicotine-yellow or concerned with nothing more than the desperation of prolonging an evening that’s slipping away by driving the long way home in a tatty Vauxhall Nova, but there is grace and weight and beauty, nonetheless. Just listen to the exhausted drift of 'Two Tree Island', the half-cut waltz of 'Cocoa Butter' or 'Calling Out Your Name', with its pitter-patter gait and sudden explosion into glorious Technicolor. These are songs that elevate the cracked, the tedious and the quotidian into a form that transcends their lacklustre inspiration, allowing anyone to conclude that Hayman has emphatically achieved his goal of wanting to write about ‘love in unloved places’. He's taken something as innately unromantic as the Essex badlands and treat it with a ‘tenderness and respect’ that eventually allows it to become oddly and startling beautiful.
I’ve probably failed miserably with that opening paragraph, but I honestly was wary of laying on the ‘I’M FROM ESSEX TOO, ME’ schtick too thick, because that could suggest that my high opinion of this record stems only from my unfortunate knowledge of the milieu in focus. But this is honestly far from the truth. Darren Hayman has crafted another remarkable record out of the most unexpected of source materials, but its brilliance will stick even if you don’t get a little thrill of familiarity by hearing him sing, "the Rayleigh boys, will fuck up all of Southend". At a time when Essex’s most prominent cultural representation comes with ‘The Only Way Is Essex’ (Google it, I dare you), quite simply… thank fuck for the genius of Darren Hayman.
9Michael Wheeler's Score