If a week equates to a long time in politics, then god only knows what 10 years is in music. Think of the passing fads, crazes, buzz bands and hype not to mention the changes in how we consume our music and it boggles the mind. As does the fact that Hefner‘s at the time divisive fourth album Dead Media is celebrating its 10th birthday.
To some, the question will arise as to who Hefner are, so before we look at the album here’s a bit of background. Hefner were the perennial outsiders of the alternative ’90s creative boom in British music (the use of Britpop is contentious at the best of times so we’ll put that tag to one side). While contemporaries such as Sleeper saw support slots and success beyond their wildest dreams, frontman/songwriter Darren Hayman and co always seemed to be the stranger at the window watching the revelry taking place inside. Granted, first album Breaking God’s heart was arguably too rough around the edges and individual to ever really fit into the musical landscape of the time, but we defy anyone to listen to Don’t Flake Out On Me off second album The Fidelity Wars and not think that it should have been bigger in period. The same can be levelled at its successor, We Love The City, whose bold sound perfectly encapsulates the confidence prevalent in British culture throughout the mid-late 1990s.
Throughout this time the accolades came thick and fast, with the period surrounding the first three albums seeing inclusions in the Peel Festive 50, a number one on the British indie album chart (remember that?) and the formation of a fanbase who, while smaller than those of other acts at the time, unarguably had greater affection for their band of choice. There was then a sense of expectation in some quarters regarding Dead Media, and to many they blew it. The new electronic sound sat uneasily with those who’d grown up with the group’s guitar based sound and fans voted with their wallets (Hayman estimates it sold a third as much as We Love The City). But, with 10 years having now passed and a reissue now completed that collects together all material from the period, there’s no finer time to re-evaluate the black sheep of the Hefner back catalogue.
“In many respects my musical career is still in turmoil because I made this record, and I’d certainly be a lot less poor if I’d made another album like We Love the City,” says Darren Hayman. “It may surprise you to learn that I have never worked as hard or put a much of myself into a record as I did with Dead Media. That’s not said to make you appreciate it more, but it is said to make you see that this wasn’t a lazy effort from me. My only regret about this album in retrospect is how little John, Antony and Jack get to do on the album. All the synth programming was by me and at least seven of the songs are pretty much me on my own.”
But it was the album that marked the end for the band. “I don’t feel bitter about the way anything turned out in Hefner. I’ve never liked my bands to play it safe, I’d rather fall flat on my face once in a while than keep moving forward at a snail’s place,” says Hayman. “Listening to it now, I’m struck by how melancholic the album sounds. It’s almost like we knew it could be the last Hefner album, and I suppose we did, subconsciously at least.
It must be said, though, that Dead Media always sits slightly awkwardly in the Hefner cannon. If viewed as a film, then Breaking God’s Heart would set the scene, The Fidelity Wars the bleak middle passage, and We Love The City the near-euphoric positive ending, leaving Dead Media slightly spare part-ish. Not that such technicalities detract from the opening track, a widescreen collision of multi-layered synthesizer lines and mortar shell drums. It remains possibly the closest that Hefner ever got save perhaps Good Fruit to a genuine lighters aloft anthem. The early stages of the album ably demonstrate that even on this, their supposed enfant terrible, Hefner continued to have a way with both tune and kitchen sink vignette-esque lyrics. This is demonstrated conclusively on Junk, with its subtle brass accompaniment, and the infectious The Angels Play Their Drum Machines (‘let me let you let me down again’ is classic Hayman).
Elsewhere, the relationship-based lyrical themes which have to many defined Hefner continue on China crisis, complete with boy/girl vocals that only serve to draw the listener into the matter in hand. Alan Bean meanwhile, while not the album’s strongest track, is surely the only one in history written about the fourth man on the moon, continuing Hayman’s ability to write songs about the strangest of topics, right up until last year’s Dagenham Ford. Them on an album that to this point that has been somewhat melancholic, it pulls The King Of Summer out the bag, song so infectious and bouncy it’s impossible not to smile at. The end of the album again demonstrates that while the overall sound changed, the songwriting abilities didn’t, with Half A Life and Waking Up To you being as good as anything Hefner had done to that point.
The quality remains high throughout the reissues bonus tracks, most notably in propulsive b-side Dark Hearted Disco and the criminally overlooked Baggage Reclaim Song, which features not only one of Hefner’s sunniest tunes, but its most heartbreaking lyrics about your parents dying and your kids leaving you. It’s quite the trip. Completists will revel in the plethora of remixes available, and as with previous reissues you certainly feel that you’re getting your money’s worth.
Granted, it isn’t perfect, but neither did it ever claim to be. Trouble Kid will appeal to fans of early single Pull Yourself together, but some will find it repetitive. Most will find the three interludes pointless, and you either find closing track home endearingly ramshackle, or merely rambling. But is it the controversial body of work that it appeared to be on release? Not by a long shot. It’s the sound of a band experimenting sonically and striving to create something truly new and interesting only for their fanbase and the media to not quite get their head round and flatly dismiss it out of hand. This extended edition affords the opportunity for a full re-appraisal and I for one recommend that you do, free of all the contextualisation and history that dogged it at the time. Better still, Darren can be found touring songs off the album this month as part of a solo tour, and what better way to appreciate the album than for one man and a guitar to strip it down to what it’s about, new sound or not: honest-to-god, good songs.
As a final missive, to those who abandoned ship upon its release, we leave you with this.
Hefner’s Dead Media 2 CD reissue is out now and available from Darren Hayman’s Bandcamp.