If you believed everything you saw on TV about Essex, you’d think it was utterly bereft of culture and significance. These days it’s apparently full of vacuous, perma tanned twonks, whilst the entire population appears to have a combined IQ of around 42 (on a good day). The television is both the great educator and the heartless liar that brings the joys and horrors of life directly into our living rooms and with increasing regularity, whatever it spews forth needs to be taken with a large side order of salt.
Darren Hayman has, over the course of his Essex trilogy albums, sought to redress the esteem in which Essex is held. As the trilogy reaches its rather bloody conclusion with The Violence, Hayman’s push to re-examine Essex as somewhere that deserves reassessment and greater understanding also reaches its end.
The Violence is essentially a look at the darker side of life (as has been usual in all of Hayman’s work) and examines 17th Century England; a country that indulged in witch trails and public executions. The people that populate Hayman’s album live cowed by fear, and die as a result of religious bigotry; “We are alive, through impossible times” he sings on Impossible Times. Although it’s clear he’s talking from the view point of the women that were hanged for being witches and addressing a country that was at the time in Civil War, it is tempting to transpose his lyrics into the present day and assess the world now, based on the actions of the past.
“England’s rotting away, wasted, riddled with hate” he sings on Desire Lines later on. Nothing much seems to have changed. After all history has a way of repeating itself and the England that Hayman himself populates is still quite partial to the odd witch hunt, a healthy dose of religious intolerance, and trial by public hysteria (and Twitter frenzies). They might not have had television in 17th Century England to shape national consciousness but the Church,Throne and Witch Finder General Matthew Hopkins did a fairly good job.
The Violence works because it looks beyond the hysteria/wisdom of crowds and examines fear and sorrow on a personal level. Hayman’s attention to detail and focus on people means that these songs hit harder than if they’d addressed wider topics and in turn they become finely crafted critiques of justice, punishment and the stripping of humanity from “the other”, whoever that may be.
With his backing band The Long Parliament behind him, Hayman has succeeded in making a truly wonderful album that excels on just about every level. These songs have their roots in traditional folk for the most part, and as usual there’s an eloquence and craft to his songwriting that is utterly spellbinding and charming. This is handy, because the subject matter of The Violence could be incredibly oppressive without some wonderful melodies to cling to. The addition of strings and woodwind lend a sense of the pastoral that gives the album an overriding sense of Englishness, giving these stories a sense of place and time. That the band keep things fairly light ensures that Hayman’s horrific tales are always counterbalanced with something beautiful.
In terms of songs, there are many highlights. Henrietta Maria stands out in particular. Sung from the perspective of King Charles as he serenades his Queen, it is beautiful and touching, and somehow Hayman manages to indulge in a brief history lesson without ever compromising his lyrical meter or the song’s integrity. It is however the Witch Trail songs that capture the imagination, and they all hang together perfectly, with lyrical and musical motifs binding them. Elizabeth Clarke Finds the protagonist wondering who will look after her dog when she has been hung, whilst simultaneously hoping that someone will afford her the small mercy of tugging on her feet when the inevitable happens to speed her on her way.
The other side of this coin is found later on during Arthur Wilson’s Reverie, where Arthur contemplates legitimacy of the Witch Trials and tries to provide comfort to the victims of the witch hunt by offering advice to pretend they’re flying as they drop and saying he’ll tug upon their feet. It’s heartbreaking and curiously beautiful despite the horror. The melody of We Are Not Evil and The Outsiders links them together as the cast of damned women protest their innocence to no avail.
It is possible to enjoy The Violence on a simplistic level, but to get the most out of it, total immersion, and a little research is recommended. With the third in his Essex trilogy Darren Hayman has surpassed himself, creating an album that is intelligent, heartfelt, and musically stunning. There’s little more that could be asked of him, and with any luck, he’ll start to receive the recognition he deserves.