Once is an infuriating album. Taken in isolation, its 11 tracks are listenable, accessible and often chart-friendly. Catchy tunes with clever lyrics – Marianna in particular – are commercial and fun in a way that deserves success. A few, such as Running Through Tunnels and its immediate successor Death Of Rose, hint at something more complex and clever.
The problem is that Once does not exist in isolation. It is the latest chapter in a career that has seen Kid Harpoon, aka Tom Hull, morph from a twee-folk, startled bunny of a wee lad supporting Fionn Regan to a ridiculously animated, folk-noise whirlwind, heading a bill on which Florence And The Machine played second fiddle. Along the way, two EPs promised great things from a talented singer-songwriter with an impressive vocal range.
Excitingly changeable and able to morph between delicate acoustic minimalism and furiously improvised passion, Kid Harpoon seemed to offer something new from one performance to the next, always innovative and always surprising.
Sadly, this hasn’t translated to the recording studio as well as one might have hoped, perhaps because in the meantime too many others have stepped up to the podium where folk, punk and art noise mingle for what he does to sound quite so fresh anymore. More likely it’s because Trevor Horn’s (over) production has resulted in something so polished and tidied up what made it so interesting in the first place has been scrubbed away.
The choice not to include any of the songs that appeared on the two previous EPs means there is no direct point of comparison with the earlier material (such as the superbly leftfield Milkmaid, a song that sounds like the twisted offspring of The Decemberists and Gallows), making it hard to tell just how much of the blame can be laid at Horn’s door. The rough edges have gone, though, to be replaced by something more commercial, accessible and ultimately bland.
This is not to say that Once is a bad album. It isn’t. The delicate Buried Alive is a timelessly decent song on which Hull’s voice soars above the uncomplicated instrumentation. Burnt Down House plays with the kind of alt.country lyrical themes a thousand Americana stalwarts from The Handsome Family to Smog would take on a first date. But the innovation, the sense of this being something genuinely different, has gone, replaced with a pop-folk conventionality that has more in common with the debut albums of Jack Pe�ate or Kate Nash.
There are brief moments where the promised brilliance still shines. Running Through Tunnels and Death Of Rose sit side by side with half-whispered, subtly dark lyrics that seep through the mire as though they’ve escaped from a lost Kurt Weill operetta. If only the rest of the tracks match could match them.
In many ways, Hull has come back to where he started. The frenetic energy has gone. The snarling beauty that spit out Leonard Cohen covers with a ferocity that left the audience reeling has been set aside, replaced by a wide-eyed desire to please, epitomised by the polished piano ballad of the title track. Frustratingly, swathes of listeners who prefer their folk unchallenging, safe and painlessly accessible will probably lap it up.