ILM's 2005 collaborative mix project hoonja-doonja!

February 22, 2005

Peter Hammill, "The Second Hand"

It’d be a strange world in which Peter Hammill scored a Top 40 hit; he’s certainly never come close in this one. For more than 35 years he’s been digging away at his cult artist trench, influential but barely on speaking terms with popularity. It’s easy to hear why. His voice, for starters. Not many Pop Stars enunciate with quite such plummy precision. And whilst his baritone is often beautiful, it’s never far from unhinged. He sounds like a King’s Chorister turned mean and unpredictable by age and bad liquor.

Then there’s the lyrics. Whilst Hammill’s themes have ranged far and wide, he returns again and again to the question of what it means to be alive. I can’t think of another songwriter quite so preoccupied with the existential. He picks at mortality like an itchy scab, knowing he can’t answer himself but constrained to keep trying anyway. This makes for some wordy songs, and sometimes he runs away with himself and comes off overblown. Many of his love songs create the impression of a slightly overbearing obsessive. He don’t do many jokes. But when he reins in the anxiety just a little bit he’s as affecting and honest as anybody in pop.

He also has an ear for a tune, which helps. In Van der Graaf Generator, the shrieking Prog-Jazz behemoth that launched Hammill to, well, not success exactly, the melodies are usually hammered into your skull like titanium rivets. In his solo work, he displays a more restrained pop sensibility. “The Second Hand” is a Bowie-ish homebrew funk number from the late 70s. Hammill plays everything except the lovely sax provided by long-time collaborator David Jackson. It feels like the musical equivalent of outsider art. It’s about mortality, obviously.

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