‘Damn The Dam’ man John Hanlon has a new album and as the title suggests it’s full of naked truths. GARY STEEL takes a listen.
Two thousand and twenty-one presents a real quandary for artists who don’t fit the unspoken requirements of this moment in time. Age is an issue. Boomer acts are made to feel old and in the way. And to be frank, many of them are. Who needs, for instance, yet another album by Covid-denying Eric Clapton, who hasn’t made an album that justifies his “legend” for going on half a century. There are too many self-satisfied elder statesmen drifting along on reputations forged before time began – at least as far as the latest generation of music consumers is concerned.
Unfortunately, this parlous state of affairs obscures the quiet achievers: those who, regardless of age, feel driven to keep writing songs and making music, and who have grown and changed and become wise with the years.
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While the advent of the teenager in the 1950s created an ever-hungry demographic for the blazingly new and novel that has continued to this day, the broader sweep of musical endeavour reveals that genuine artists seldom retire, and that many, far from conforming to the “pale stale male” myth, actually get better as the lines on their faces grow deeper.
Take John Hanlon, who has more to say and sings it better than he ever did back in the era that made him – the 1970s – when he was for a time caught in the zeitgeist of popular success. He was a young man when he accidentally became a folk-protest sensation with ‘Damn The Dam’ and only a few years later when he hit the home-grown big-time with award-winning ‘Lovely Lady’. There were four hit albums before he vanished overseas and disappeared from our collective radar, though that didn’t entirely stop him. The 2013 compilation, After The Dam Broke (Ode) gathers together 20 of his best ‘70s tracks, but the surprise is the second disc, which provided many with their first exposure to selections recorded in the ‘80s and beyond.
Now 72, Hanlon simply refuses to lie down and go away. If anyone wants proof that a boomer can craft songs that only life experience (and the wisdom that goes with it) could convey, they should do themselves a favour, grab a glass of something relaxing and take in the recently-released Naked Truths.
It’s a record that was forged as Hanlon faced an uncertain future waiting for a life-saving operation that might never have eventuated. There must have been some dark times, but what comes through on the 23 songs of Naked Truths is a profound love of life. It’s perhaps intentional that he gets things started with ‘6.2.4’, an ode to “the fools and lovers who go dancing in the rain” – the idea that experiencing the dance of life together with all its wonder and inevitable pain is worth every moment. And on ‘Indigo’, “Come and go/ebb and flow/indigo” suggests that bad things will always come along, so let’s treasure the best that life has to offer.
The album is packed full of keen observations. On ‘Everybody’s Talking ‘bout The Weather’, the vignettes describe how we tend to evade the sober truth of our species’ often lamentable behaviour by pointedly skimming along the surface, keeping things superficial. Another song towards the end of the record, ‘We Don’t Talk About That’, navigates similar territory. ‘The Hero’ is a conceptually linked and very poignant piece about our celebration of war heroes, often without any understanding of the real price of organised conflict. ‘We Do What We Do’, on the other hand, puts all our worldly worries in the lap of the gods: “Nothing really matters but the bees amongst the flowers in my garden.”
While social commentary still forms part of Hanlon’s subject matter, the songs on Naked Truths are primarily ruminative, elemental and nature-loving, which includes the act of loving his closest other. In a sense, his world-view is romantic, but that word takes on a deeper meaning.
I put off listening properly to this album for ages for one reason: 23 tracks is a lot to get through and I just couldn’t find the time or headspace to give it my undivided attention. A shorter album would have made a stronger totality but really, it’s all good.
My one half-cocked gripe is about the musical backing. While I’m a Leonard Cohen fan I’ve never much liked the cod-Klezmer backing on many of his albums, and too often – for my taste at least – Naked Truths goes for a kind of ersatz French-styled gentle swing feel that I find a bit clammy. (Perhaps it’s simply because the big studios and chunky budgets of the ’70s just aren’t available now. Regardless, his producer/arranger collaborators Russell Finch and Kiwi legend Bruce Lynch have done an excellent job in general). Happily, the clamminess is only true for a small clutch of tunes and the rest vary the approach within the primarily acoustic scope of the sound.
But as with Cohen, John Hanlon’s eloquent songs get into your head regardless. It’s the economy and simplicity of his writing together with his sense of melody that make these songs so memorable and (dare I say it) ear-wormy.
Those who found Hanlon’s 1970s vocals challenging (what was it with all the Bee Gee-like vibrato going on back then?) might find consolation in the fact that he’s matured into an attractively burnished, deeper-voiced version of himself that occasionally sounds a little like Chris Rea (‘It’s True’) and a quite a bit like Tom Waits (that’s a good thing – check ‘It’s Cold Out Here’).
Naked Truths might not be the kind of album that social media influencers will want to promote and unlike Lorde’s latest its cover doesn’t feature an up-the-crotch shot. It’s an album of astute observations and ruminations about life at this point of history. It’s John Hanlon, now, and it’s real good.