Albums as records of not only music but moments is nothing new. In recent years several releases have won listeners over with this private-made-public approach. Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago is one notable example. In a similar way, Florence by Darren Hayman succeeds in capturing the emotion welling under a particular point in time, though the music on a few tracks holds the album back from being the gem of song-writing it should have been.
The opening song “Nuns Run the Apothecary” is a delicate and masterful expression of the personal and sets the tone for the rest of the album. Ostensibly concerning Hayman’s arrival at his friends’ Florentine flat, the lyrics open with a series of instructions and continue to describe the locality. Recounted in an unadorned manner, the naturalistic lyrics through their precise nature express not only the sense of home Hayman is entering – something which demands all this care – but the character of the host who left it. Even if his hosts are not exactly like this, the song’s strength is in how it conveys a particular impression so simply and vividly.
“On the Outside” is, contrary to the title, very much about being indoors, secluded in this flat. Each image – the wind with teeth, a black orchid wreath and faces turning blue are part of a seemingly hostile world which Hayman is at once sheltered and providing shelter from, perhaps through the song itself. The evocation of place continues in “From the Square to the Hill”. Hayman walks the city’s landmarks while urging his companion to spend the day doing nothing. Idleness rarely sounded so sweet.
Fortunately, the album is not merely snapshot after snapshot of one man’s trip. It lays bare the thoughts and feeling which can unexpectedly arise when we’re away from home. On “When you’re Lonely”, Hayman makes no mention of the titular city. Instead, he presents a mildly ironic comment on middle age. “The right amount of grey” is not only a great line in the context of pop music; it’s a subtle piece of wisdom.
For three of the songs, Hayman replaces the guitar with an electronic keyboard. Two of these songs, “Break up with him” and “Didn’t I say don’t Fall in Love with him” prove to be the weakest moments on the album. The stiff, soulless electronic beat tramples over the sentiments rather than buoying them up. Moreover, the hollow sound of the instrument shows up the limits of Hayman’s voice. Backed up by guitar, he can sound delicate. Here he sounds somewhat lifeless.
The third of these keyboard songs, “Post Office Girl” is a bit more of a conundrum. The song has the musical qualities which detracted from the other two songs, but on this track Hayman doesn’t seem to stretch himself. Moreover, the lyrics return the listener to an expertly rendered moment, namely being beguiled by a post office clerk while waiting in line. His sense of estrangement gets beautifully tangled up with the moment of attraction and inspiration.
Lyrically, Florence demonstrates Hayman’s observational powers. He deserves to be considered alongside John Darnielle and Jarvis Cocker as a songwriter who can find the sublime in minutiae. Unfortunately, not all the performances on this album carry the thoughtful lyrics they are built around.
Feature image adapted from a photo by Steve Hersey