Return To The Black Room
I can't remember the last time I listened to Peter Hammill though I was an avid follower of his work with Van Der Graaf Generator and his early solo releases. I spent hours pondering the significance of the lyrics to 'Man-erg', 'In The End', 'A Louse Is Not A Home' and 'Rock and Role' and I can't begin to recall the number of times I re-played 'Chameleon In The Shadow Of The Night' fascinated by that 'cultured bark' as one critic tried to describe the inimitable Hammill voice. And then there was 'The Black Room', a song to which I can still remember some of the words. 'I'm feeling like a kid again , I'm feeling like I just walked in the door'. His lyrics also inspired me, if that's the right word, to write a stream of turgid imitations full of ghosts, nameless heads and eyeless sockets. I'm sure I wasn't the only one!
So how did I lose track of his work ? That was something I thought about as I listened to his latest solo outing. It isn't entirely 'solo' of course, since he is joined by long time Van Der Graaf associate David Jackson (saxes/flute) and Stuart Gordon on violin/viola. But apart from that it is just Hammill with his voices and guitar, pretty much unplugged, or in his own words :
"This clutch of songs was written and performed exclusively on acoustic guitar, as were all my earliest efforts......This was not intended to be and has not turned out as any kind of folk or roots collection".
Well he never tried to be fashionable, did he ?
Listening to this I felt as though time had somehow been stopped. I mean the voice has hardly altered and the songs are every bit as erudite as they ever were. He didn't so much compose tunes as offer shreds of melody which would then often veer off in the most unmelodic twists whilst wrapping the lyric's particular message. Though equally he did come up with tunes that continue to haunt and remain in the memory, like 'Refugees', perhaps, or 'Wilhelmina'.
There is a song here in a similar vein to that latter gem only this time it is written with parental insight. In 'Once You Called Me' Hammill, the father, 'an ancient relic', contemplates a daughter who wasn't 'a little girl for very long', the child who 'called me "Daddy"'. It could be mawkish but it isn't , it sounds heart-felt and honest, as he comes to terms with the inevitable. It also offers evidence of his skill with the most tender of melodies embellished by Stuart Gordon's gliding string arrangement.
He also chooses to examine childhood in an entirely different way on 'Just A Child'. Harsh, angular viola cuts across the lyric's blunt accusatory refrain : 'The girl was just a child'. His target, the child-abuser, gets short shrift, as do the purveyors of 'skinny model fantasy' in 'Skinny'. His areas of concern my have altered somewhat with the passage of time but the passion he brings to bear hasn't been diluted any.
One area he has confronted before is that of god and religion and he's still wrestling with the question 'How in God's name did religion fall so far away from God ?' in 'This is the Fall'. He respects those who do believe while he remains an atheist offering no answers. From this position he constructs a tortured lyric supported by Jackson's ethereal flute and disturbed violin from Gordon. It has that sense of anger and confrontation that his work had all those years ago as his voice soars and declaims over jagged acoustic guitar. A demented chorus of his own making gathers behind his main vocal giving the piece a dramatic, theatrical effect . Classic Hammill, in fact.
I don't know why I have not kept up with his output over the years. But it is gratifying to hear just how vital his work still is and how the feeling it evoked back in the early solo years is still as fresh. His voice is just as angry, tender, unique and compelling. He has chosen sympathetic accompaniments for his diatribes and meditations. I guess I have some catching up to do.
© 2003 Paul Donnelly