To say the last two years of Mark Hamilton’s life have been disruptive would be a massive understatement. In that time, his life has been on an emotional big dipper, the loss of a relationship bringing him to a personal crossroads. In his words, the resultant relocation to Vancouver forced Hamilton to have a long look at where he went next, and he decided to turn his back on music altogether.
So why is he back with another album? The decision to set aside music, his first love, removed all the pressure from his back – and conversely enabled him to write songs with no holds barred and no adherence to the rules. Because of that we have in T R O U B L E a collection of Hamilton’s most personal utterances, stripped bare and with little or no concession to how Woodpigeon songs might be expected to go. The album is still that of a collective, but Hamilton’s life is poured into its content.
The songs are stronger than ever, and the production remains recognisably the work of Hamilton’s hand. The elegiac trumpet that cracks with emotion on The Falling Tide, for instance, represents digging deep in the emotional psyche, and with the rat-a-tat percussion cultivated in the manner of the best Woodpigeon songs, lends a military edge that’s rather disconcerting.
It is, however, in songs such as Devastating that Hamilton delivers the killer blows. This is a man stripped completely bare, emotionally naked in front of his audience as he considers the end of his relationship in a fragile discourse. Not content with such a frank and open assessment, he picks at the scabs in Faithful – which to all intents and purposes has a silent ‘un’ before it. The song might be gentle in its delivery but its message, laced with bad feeling, is anything but. “You thought me faithful but I am not,” sings Hamilton, at which point the song ends in mid-air, seemingly unable to continue.
Hamilton’s voice is a pained instrument at times, and on headphones the personal discourse is almost overwhelming, especially in penultimate song The Accident, where his voice almost fails him. No Word Of A Lie is a little stronger, a pep talk to himself where Hamilton instructs, “Wings don’t fail me now, it’s a long way down”. His sotto voce delivery draws the ear in to hear these things, and at the same time enables an appreciation of the musicianship he has at his disposal.
Whole Body Shakes, for example, has a remarkable array of instrumental colour, from the trumpet struggling to get its words out to the steel-edged piano note that cuts through the texture, not forgetting some incredibly sensitive drumming and a gritty, unhinged double bass. Hamilton uses unconventional rhythms, too, drawing on music he heard in Turkey and Argentina. In songs like Fence this shifts the emphasis off the beat, the song without a conventional root, in anticipation of the emotionally unhinged music to come.
And yet T R O U B L E offers hope right at the death in the form of Rooftops, Hamilton finding inner resolve for the way forward. “And in the end what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he sings, using a fuller texture and gathering the forces the Woodpigeon band have at their disposal. It is an ultimately uplifting coda to a trying but magnificent achievement, the human soul laid bare in songs that reach the very back of the heart.