Edinburgh’s Dan Willson has been recording and performing as Withered Hand for more than five years now, but his second album New Gods looks set to be something of a belated breakthrough. Willson’s music has been rather too easily categorised as winsome indie-pop, and his imposing but faltering voice, combined with strummed acoustic guitars and the occasional slice of Byrdsian twang certainly place him in a certain lineage.
New Gods is produced by Tony Doogan, the Scottish producer perhaps most well known for his work with Belle and Sebastian and The Delgados. The music here also takes an occasional left-turn into country pastiche that recalls the dry-witted brilliance of the much-missed Broken Family Band.
Yet there is also something else at play here. Song titles such as The King Of Hollywood and California suggest transatlantic preoccupations and it is often US acts that his music most resembles. Vocally, Willson shares an untutored, raw impact with Jeff Mangum, and there is also some of the imaginative melodic flair of contemporary bands such as Avi Buffalo and The Shins. There are also some unexpected moments of both delicacy and bold cinematic flight in the arrangements here, from the delightful pizzicato strings and choral backing vocals of the title track, to the soaring horns of Between Love and Ruin (a song that performs a nimble balancing act on a tightrope between sentiment and schmaltz).
The album also has an impressive cast of guest musicians, surely testament to the respect with which Willson is now viewed by both his peers and his predecessors. There are appearances from Black Tambourine’s Pam Berry (and a track is even named in honour of that cult band), Eugene Kelly of The Vaselines, King Creosote and members of Belle and Sebastian and Frightened Rabbit. The long gestation between Withered Hand’s 2009 debut Good News and New Gods seems to have resulted in a carefully considered record that often sounds beautiful.
This is a high quality collection of songs, full of memorable moments, from the heartwarming and soaring horn-laden finale of Not Alone to the crisp, infectious jangle of singles Horseshoe and Black Tambourine. There’s also space for the explosive, urgent Heart Heart, a longstanding live favourite that proves equally irresistible in recorded form. Willson does not always resist some residual indie-rock cliches (na-na-na singalong codas, ever-increasing thick block textures of guitar strumming), but it’s possible to indulge him some of these familiar tropes due to the generosity and creativity with which he works on many of these songs.
Willson also proves to be a master of the immediately compelling opening lyric. Opening track Horseshoe begins with some delightful word play (“Here I go, pigeon toed, to the featherweight fight”) and the song provides a perfect overture to a set that successfully deploys all the key resources of songwriting, luxuriating in the sound of words and feel of phrases as well as in the inherent drama and humour of Willson’s narratives. Sometimes, Willson’s tales take wryly autobiographical turns, not least at the very outset of Love Over Desire, where Willson protests ‘I’m not getting on that silver bird until my guitar goes in to the hold!’. Like Mark Kozelek on Sun Kil Moon’s Among The Leaves, Willson has here used some of the more prosaic, repetitive details of a musician’s life as a springboard for some touching and imaginative songwriting.
New Gods plays a delicate balancing act in retaining some of the whimsy and homespun qualities of DIY indie, whilst also reaching out for something broader and less enclosed. It is at once assured and endearingly self deprecating. It has an open hearted appeal that just might make Withered Hand a household name.