Follow-ups are always difficult. Especially if you’re young, talented and your debut album/novel/film was showered in critical glitter and award nominations. Look at Zadie Smith. Or Kevin Smith for that matter. Whether your thing is literary fiction or ultra low-budget indie filmmaking, it can be difficult to recreate that initial magic. The weight of expectation can sink you.
Released in 2002, waif-like singer-songwriter Gemma Hayes‘ first album Night On My Side garnered her a Mercury prize nomination and set up her up as one to watch. But that was three years ago and there’s been nothing from her since. Yet, though it was apparently, understandably, quite tough to write, the evocatively named The Roads Don’t Love You has neatly side-stepped that difficult-second-whatever category. And while the album contains a superficial poppy gloss that may disappoint some fans but there is still much to love within it.
Early impressions suggest that some of the subtlety may have been sucked out of her music, that some of her gently experimental edge has been sacrificed, but these reservations are tempered, as ever, by her distinctive vocals. Hers is a voice warmed by charm and character; her Irish accent colouring her singing in a manner that is both deeply endearing and rather beautiful.
Happy Sad, a soon-to-be single, best demonstrates this quality, sweet and catchy yet pretty conventional, elevated by a lilting interlude where the jangly guitars give way to a poignant refrain of “the roads don’t love.” This is followed by the comparatively pared down Easy On the Eye, a silky acoustic track, full of wistful lyrics about the pleasures of looking: “you’re so easy on the eye; you please my troubled mind.” It’s a reminder of how good Hayes is at such minimal, folky material and one wishes there were more moments like this on the album.
Keep Me Here is another strong song, buoyed by a raw chorus (“I’m standing in front of you; I’m a million miles away.”) But, despite the odd good line, Undercover feels repetitive and sluggish in comparison. And Helen, the most overtly Celtic influenced song on here, also feels like something of a missed opportunity.
While Happy Sad and the similarly poppy Something In My Way are the most instantly agreeable moments on the album – in terms of burning their way onto your internal i-pod – for me the standout track is Horses, a far more original and intriguing song full of unexpected shifts in tone (and one of the highpoints of her live set – though the album version is perhaps overproduced.)
Though nothing on this record quite matches the rare poetic power of, say, Ran For Miles, even at its poppiest The Roads Don’t Love You maintains a particular intimacy, and it certainly grows on you after a couple of plays. Gemma Hayes has yet to make the really great album she is capable of making. But until she does this will do nicely.