By allowing his craft to grow slowly, results here are stronger than ever.
Daniel Ross 2010
On 2009’s Pram Town album, Darren Hayman proved that the county of Essex was a fertile ground for artistic expression. On Essex Arms, the second of a proposed Essex Trilogy, he proves that there is far more potential in Essex than we might have hoped. Though Hayman has always excelled at finding what’s human amongst life’s dregs, he is something of a spokesman for a very specific seediness, and under-recognised as such. Indeed, not since his days fronting Hefner (affectionately known in the 90s as "Britain’s biggest small band") has he fully received the acclaim he deserves, and Essex Arms could be the record that pushes him back towards the limelight.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that amongst the guests on this album are members of rising indie-folksters Fanfarlo and Emmy the Great, who duets with Hayman on Calling Out Your Name Again. These guest spots don’t get in the way of the quality of the songwriting, however. Indeed, on the duet with Emmy, it’s rewarding to finally hear a female perspective on Hayman’s tales of masculine intrigue, even more so when it takes in grubby nocturnal encounters and clattering iron bedsteads. Peculiar to Hayman is this estuary drear and emotional rot, but he keeps it human enough to make it totally compelling.
The seediness of I’ll Be Your Alibi recalls Hefner’s Don’t Go from their excellent We Love the City album thanks to its whispered sexual murk, but has a pleasing weight to it in terms of length and importance. Dagenham Ford is Hayman’s Shipbuilding, conjuring the bleakness of the closure of a Ford factory, brought to life by observations like "watching the Hammers lose" and the machine-like plod of the tempo. Both are coloured superbly by their creator’s trademark wit and readiness to divulge.
Musically, too, there is subtly great growth, myriad light touches that lift the songs into true brilliance (the winding, reverberant oboe on Plastic and Steel is a stand-out). It is perhaps a stubborn growth – even if he was let loose on a symphony orchestra, Hayman would surely still stick to ukuleles and the odd splash of woodwind, and long may he remain glued to his tools. By sticking to his guns and allowing his craft to grow slowly, the results are stronger than ever. The forthcoming third instalment of this trilogy promises a great deal.