Gemma Hayes – Let It Break
It is the fate of most artists (at least those who achieve a modicum of success; van Gogh probably didn’t have this trouble) that their later work is viewed through the prism of their earlier triumphs, particularly if their debut was nominated for a prize as illustrious as the Mercury. It is, then, difficult to give a new Gemma Hayes album a fair write-up. In the name of full disclosure, I consider two of her three LPs to date works of near-genius. On the one hand, I’m rooting for her, but on the other I’m the ultimate tough crowd, holding this new album up to the highest of standards.
So then, to Let It Break, which has crept into the world with less of a bang and more of a whimper; it was released in Ireland on 27th May, but only available digitally elsewhere until the following Tuesday, and then only through HMV UK, who claimed 14 days for delivery. Hardly a blaze of glory, but then nowadays Gemma is self-releasing, a casualty of Virgin’s purchase of Source, her one-time label.
Opening track “Don’t Let Them Cut Your Hair” is a non-song; an exercise in reverberating minimalism. “Keep Running” is better, and the first indication that this album is, to put it politely, not exactly ripping up the playbook and starting again. Drum machine intro, ethereal background vocals, intelligent melody, all present and correct. Known as “Tokyo” for a while and performed live on radio in its embryonic form, it’s classic Hayes in the best possible sense; dreamy, but not intangible like some of this record. The middle section (“I turned around and everything changed…”) has a clever missing beat moment that makes music geeks like me grin manically; the occasional bar of three in a 4/4 song is a satisfying thing. It’s also the loudest moment of the album, and perhaps the most fun as well, perhaps the least over-thought (overwrought?).
From there, however, Let It Break is patchy. Sure, it’s shot through with Hayes’ signature moments of lyrical and melodic brilliance that still have the power to thrill me; “Shock To My System” is delicate, melancholic and achingly lovely, but I catch myself longing to return to the crappy, jerky-mobile-phone-recorded YouTube clip where I first heard it; no strings, no glockenspiel, more passion. For me, the layers of overdubs have detracted from rather than added to the lyric. Also, there’s one chord in the pizzicato violins in the outro (3 minutes 49 seconds in, if you’re curious) that is either a terrible mistake, an AutoTune glitch or a sign that Hayes and I have very different understandings of harmonic theory. That aside, however, it remains probably the second-strongest song on the record.
With the exception of these highlights, however, I’m hard pressed to find anything else worht mentioning. “Brittle Winter” is the same talking-to-herself narrative as “January 14th” on her last album The Hollow of Morning, whilst “All I Need” is peculiarly jaunty and incongruous, led by a simplistic piano motif that sticks out like a sore thumb on this most textural of albums.
“Ruin” begins well, driving towards something, a sense of foreboding, anticipation. Great lyrics too:
Hiding out in trenches I’ve built
I’m so good at it now
I know how to trick myself
We’ll soon see if you’ll be my ruin
I may be high but you got me terrified
You make me feel something again
You make me feel human
I’m left with the feeling it doesn’t quite realise its potential; it builds to nowhere.
The whole album lacks dynamic contrast. Sure, it’s loud and quiet in places, but it creeps from one to the other so gently that the two are never really juxtaposed. Given that Gemma’s first album-era band flogged this trick to death (in a Pixies/Pumpkins fashion), I’d forgive her for being sick of it, but this record is in danger of tiptoeing around moments that could have been climactic, instead letting them pass by almost unnoticed.
It’s an exercise in treading water. It’s The Hollow of Morning crossed with the pop sensibility of her second, The Roads Don’t Love You. Jon Brion-esque moments of echoing, percussive high synths and pizzicato strings, drum machines, trebly, scratchy strummed acoustics; the sonic pallette is much the same as ever, and the writing successes are fewer and further between. Loyalists should download “Keep Running”, “Shock to my System” and “Ruin”, but newcomers would be much better off starting with her Mercury-nominated debut Night on my Side, followed by The Hollow of Morning.
Gemma is touring Ireland now and has a UK tour in the offing in September. Reservations about this album notwithstanding, I’d recommend seeing her. Hers is a strong back catalogue and one she is unafraid to pick over for its highlights; that, plus her good taste in touring musicians and a penchant for covering acts as diverse as Broken Social Scene, Kate Bush and Jackson Browne make for a good show.
7 Jun Theatre Royal, Waterford25 Jun Sea Sessions, Bundoran3 Jul Clonmel Junction Festival, O’Keeffes10 Jul Riverbank (w/ Fionn Regan), Newbridge30 Jul Indiependence, Mitchelstown25 Aug Town Hall w/ Tim Christensen, Aarhus, DenmarkUK tour dates to follow in September