Essex Arms marks the return of Darren Hayman. A return to recording since 2009’s Pram Town, as well as acting as the first record he’s made since being attacked late last year. As a result, as with Edwyn Collins‘ latest release, it’s gratifying just to be listening to the album in the first place.
Intended as a companion piece to Pram Town, the premise of the album according to Darren is “The songs are about love in unloved places. I wanted to sing about a lawless, hidden version of the countryside, but still treat the subject with tenderness and respect.” Befitting to an album about rural East Anglia, the album features a stripped-down, acoustically-orientated sound that has more in common with the Great British Holiday EPs collection than the fuller sound of 2007’s Table For One.
Be Lonely begins Essex Arms with a piece of beatific melancholia befitting of its title before launching into Calling Out Your Name Again. A startling departure from the downbeat Be Lonely, it’s joyous, tuneful and upbeat with boy/girl vocals, and with mentions of barbed wire, pylons, satellite dishes and Vauxhall Novas it shows that Darren’s ability to find quirky imagery in the unlikeliest of places remains undiminished. Two Tree Island backs up this claim as mentions of faded coke cans, and polystyrene cups litter footpaths with overgrown signs. According to the man himself, the song is an ode to a notorious local dogging spot, thereby (along with Calling Out Your Name Again) cementing his claim that this album is about love in loveless places.
Cocoa Butter despite its tales of lanes that lead to shame and people you’ll never see again is in fact one of the album’s more upbeat tracks, musically, recalling bar bands and boozy singalongs not dissimilar to The Pogues at their most wistful. Whilst on the subject of The Pogues, Dagenham Ford (an ode to the local car plant), rivals White City (Shane McGowan’s tribute to London’s dog racing track, now a BBC complex) to the strangest eulogies to places ever recorded. In a similar vein, Spiderman Beats Ironman is possibly the only song to ever romanticise doing handbrake skids in a Vauxhall Nova while high on cream soda, whilst musically similar to anything on The Wave Pictures‘ If You Leave It Behind.
Overall, Darren Hayman has more than accomplished his mission statement about love in loveless places and a lawless vision of the East Anglian countryside, and the production and overall feel of the album fit its rural subject wonderfully. His way with lyrics, even after all these years, remains as adept at painting imagery as those of Bruce Springsteen or Jarvis Cocker, and a couplet can make you double take, or ponder for days. As with Edwyn Collins’ losing sleep, this record is a triumphant return. Good to have him back? Is it hell. It’s pretty damned fantastic.