Uniquely intimate and very satisfying fare from the ex-Hefner man.
Daniel Ross 2011
After being mugged, roughed up and generally given a right good seeing to after a gig in 2009, Darren Hayman’s hearing went. Not in the Beethoven sense, thankfully, but it was still significant. Loud noises became nightmarish squalls to bear grudgingly rather than reasons to jump about and thrash a Telecaster, as they previously were. Retreating and recuperating, he set about composing The Ship’s Piano, a series of story-songs composed on a 1933 fold-away piano, the like of which used to be found crammed into the corners of seafaring parlours. And while it is very gentle throughout (a descriptor that could quite often be applied to Hayman), it is one of the most rewarding albums he’s made in recent years. Of course, that’s akin to describing it as the shiniest war medal.
The gentlest number on here, Old House, marks a return to a style of personal songwriting that Hayman has left dormant for some years now. Exquisitely drawing its pictures with little more than the piano, a whispering mandolin and trumpet, it contains details so minute you’d think them pointless, but each meticulous one is a piece in the puzzle. "Where were you when the roof tiles let the rain through?" bemoans Hayman of an absent partner, before concluding that "my heart’s with the keys by the door". The sense of isolation is nagging, almost painful in the lyrics, but the warmth of the sound perfectly halts it before it gets anywhere near dreariness.
Elsewhere, too, are numerous wonderful examples of the bare craft necessitated by Hayman’s recuperation. I Taught You How to Dance, for example, is sweet and silly, but still has that slightly awkward sexual confusion he’s honed. The album’s title-track breaks from the more personal tack of many of the songs, however, detailing an imagined history of the ship’s piano itself. From origins in France to the more Hayman-esque ground of Bethnal Green and beyond, it is indeed a ripe tale of music and sadness (particularly the image of the piano being used for a drinks table at a funeral). Downbeat images are something Hayman has had no trouble in conjuring while seated at this instrument.
The notion that the instrument itself, as well as the muggy-headed circumstances of its quiet birth, has informed The Ship’s Piano is extremely attractive. Indeed, the meandering music is some of Hayman’s dreamiest yet. But a telling return to more personal stories, imagined or otherwise, makes it uniquely intimate and very satisfying.