Essex Arms is Darren Hayman’s third album backed by The Secondary Modern (and his eleventh in all guises) and sees him producing some of the best songs he has written since breaking up Hefner eight years ago. It comes off the back of Pram Town, Neon Filler’s number one album of 2009, and it might well be an even better album.
The album continues Pram Town’s theme of taking a warts and all nostalgic look at working class England, with Essex as the backdrop. Like Pram Town it is wonderfully evocative of a place and time, without descending into sneering or cloying sentiment. Hayman himself has said that the album is about “Things being done in the places they shouldn’t” and that captures the mood of the album pretty well. This time around the countryside, rather than the town, is the setting and travelling around in cars is a repeated theme.
Hayman’s perfection of melodic old-style indie pop will be well known to anyone who has followed his career and his more recent urban folk sound has been captured brilliantly on his last two Secondary Modern albums. Where Essex arms stands out is in the perfect balance of these two styles on one album.
From a song writing point of view it may eclipse its predecessor. Opener, ‘Be lonely’, is soft and melodic and melancholy. Next up is the fantastic ‘Calling Out Your Name Again’, a proper pop single with Emmy the Great sharing vocal duties.
‘Winter Makes You Want Me More’ is the album’s standout track, and as good as anything Hayman has written. It is one of those songs that makes you skip back again and again before listening to the rest of the album.
The song quality hardly dips throughout the album. Lyrically Hayman is at the top of his game, and he is a wonderful storyteller. Musically it is probably his strongest post-Hefner release. He has assembled an excellent band (with dozens of additional players) and they are a near perfect accompaniment for his distinctive vocal style.
Other songs deserving of special mention are ‘Spiderman Beats Ironman’ and ‘Nothing You can Do About It’, but different songs stand out on each listen and it is the kind of album that you come back to again and again.
It is a good year for releases so far, but it is going to have to be an excellent year to keep this album out of the top places in our top ten come year end.
By Dorian Rogers