Darren Hayman & The Secondary Modern – Pram Town (Track & Field)
Darren Hayman has always picked rich subjects for his music, usually imbued with at least the potential for real heartbreak and emotional interaction, blown-up minutiae juxtaposed with cultural references that are as retrospective as they are forward-facing. With Pram Town, his sixth LP since disbanding Hefner, Hayman has sourced another untapped niche – or at least adapted urban paranoia for his own ends. Loosely (and quite wrongly, thanks to its lack of a more ridiculous plot and characters) dubbed ‘A Folk Opera’, it weaves this paranoia of things building up around one’s ears with the now-standard Hayman range of doomed romance and microscopic social awareness. Musically, he adheres also to past formulas in near-equally weighted synthesis. So why, then, might we describe this as one of his finest works to date?
There are several reasons. This sealed sanctuary of Harlow that Hayman painstakingly evokes (not least in the inlay, which details the town’s rapid gestation and pureness of intention from the fifties onwards) forms his most coherent and comfortable reactionary basis since Hefner’s We Love The City. Harlow (the Essex town in question) represents such lofty hopes and dreams eventually becoming dated, old and not as clean as was first intended: the perfect Hayman muse. His lyrics revel in references to the straight motorways, the pristine concrete, the modern civic amenities. Crucially, though, he is quick to satirise. “You’ll wonder how you did without, this is everything we’ve always dreamt about,” he says of the extensive cycle lanes. It’s mostly affectionate and when, on Leaves On The Line, he decides he finally wants to leave this new town to follow his love (why else?), we can be confident that he does so with a heavy heart.
The love he follows is introduced early on in inimitable Hayman fashion. Rather than have this light narrative dictate the flow of the record, we’re treated to the odd snippet. It works very well, and the gentle, yearning bob of their first encounter on Compilation Cassette is rung in with a quiet chorus of ukulele and acoustic plod. As they so often are, this encounter is all hung-over berk charms sassy sexpot with nothing but knowledge and circumstance, and it’s evoked as beautifully as you could expect. The natural succession of No Middle Name is just about the dreamiest recording of Hayman’s career, finding him in wistful voice, no doubt enjoying the tree-covered boulevards of his municipal second love while he sings the whimsy one so in love would happily sing.
Room To Grow echoes She Can’t Sleep No More from We Love The City, another gentle sag on the way to happiness that relies heavily on the listener having felt this way themselves – for those that have, prepare to have your fears spelt out. It’s a reminder of the cruelness necessary to balance this ultimately delicate record. Without the necessary doubt (and jazz trumpet) that so ably lets us wildly predict the future of the relationship, we’d be stuck listening to Hayman in his most cloying guise. Fine for a while, but it’s always best to be reminded what a dirty fellow he can be.
We flit between the love and the town and the town and the love until leaving becomes the only option on Big Fish (“life here got way too brown…”), and thank goodness. It’s ruthless entertainment, intelligent construction and the occasional nagging suspicion that you’ve been this silly at some point too. If he may be relied upon for one thing only, Darren Hayman is just about as fine a crafter of sweet regret as there ever has been. Pram Town doesn’t make too much of this, and offsets it brilliantly with the setting of Harlow and the inherent quibbles, big and small. If we’re to stumble through the emotional and physical territory of the titular town, we couldn’t ask for a better guide.