I’m sure it’s a pretty ordinary thing for songwriters to sit around on their holidays and write more songs. Creative types can’t get by without creating – and so drawers sketch on the bus, writers jot ideas while sitting in the doctor’s office. It should be no surprise, then, that the inexhaustible Darren Hayman devised a whole album by himself while visiting some friends in Florence; indeed, on the day that I typed this paragraph, he was out in Kent recording his favourite train for a 7-inch. But this little sketchbook isn’t guided by any overarching concept, nor gilded with strings or choirs. Hayman hasn’t breached new territory, but when he’s this relaxed and self-assured in his selfless devotion to women, one can’t help but be comforted.
As a whole, Florence drifts at a sleepy pace – but a good sleepy, more a lullaby than a dirge. And though he keeps it simple, Haymen still plays with a range of textures. Sometimes, like on 'Post Office Girl', a rock-a-bye drum machine taps the time with glee; sometimes a ukulele traipses around the melody, like on 'Find Me And Hide Me'; and then there’s the lovely Paul Simon-esque finger picking, like in 'On the Outside'. Each style suits the context, particularly on 'Post Office Girl', where Hayman devises to record a song for the woman who handles his mail. His naïve mission statement – to get that record in her hands, even if she’ll never hear or even own it - resonates with the goofy NES blips. And geez, does it just feel great to hear someone supposedly more grown-up than me confess his awkward ways of showing affection.
The stories come in with a soft focus, on no one and everyone. You often feel as if Haymen’s just chatting with an old gal pal over coffee, like on the cheery 'Break Up With Him' and 'Didn’t I Say Don’t Fall In Love With Him'. The latter actually comes the closest to the old Hefner days, with the chug-chug rhythm, and the gentle drooping guitars. The album even opens as if Hayman’s directing a friend inside: “Use the big key on the big wood door / well, not the biggest, but the slightly smaller”. Turns out, it’s a song devoted to nuns, entitled 'Nuns Run The Apothecary'. What a gent.
Most of Florence dances lightly on the sunny side of the room – but 'Safe Fall' balances that. The picture comes in focus, and we encounter someone who’s letting her red hair dye fade and her nail paint chip, someone who’s throwing herself to the night and losing control. What’s lovely – apart from more quiet finger-picking, of course - is that Hayman doesn’t judge or condemn her, only sends his warmest concern: 'pray that she lands gently / I won’t be there'. Sentiments like that envelop Florence with a soft glow – which, again, is no big deal for Hayman, as he exudes this aura with all the natural ease of breathing air.
The best moment on the album, however, might be the one where Hayman says nothing at all. I refer to the closer, 'The English Church', the one song that captures the breeze from the Mediterranean Sea and the bells of the old world. You can imagine two old friends waking at sunrise and looking out over the plaza, or maybe walking down to the Basilica at sunset and pausing to admire the view. It’s just what the whole album’s about – finding grace in the prosaic, granting peace and grace to those that need it.
Thus, Florence isn’t Hayman’s most ambitious or thrilling work ever, but it’s not supposed to be. A moment’s rest can work wonders on a tired soul. The number below is just a number, an objective assessment that demands me to juxtapose this with other 7s, 8s, and the rest of Hayman’s work. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t fall in love with this album, or at the very least fall into a lovely chat with it and feel a little less lonely for an evening.
7Lee Adcock's Score