When we finally reach The End of Days there will only be three living things on the planet: cockroaches, Keith Richards and singer-songwriters. All three of these organisms are incredibly adaptable, resilient and despite numerous efforts to destroy them (or in the case of Keef, to destroy himself…), they remain upright, alert and positively perky. Let’s examine the humble singer-songwriter. They have survived the invention of the electric guitar, psychedelia, punk rock, disco and Lord only knows what else. Still they flourish. In fact, a few years ago, they teamed up with banjo and ukulele players and had a resurgence in popularity. No one looks back at that period with much fondness, however. Sadly, the ratio of good singer songwriters to those who should have cease and desist notices duct taped to their instruments is 1000:1 in favour of the heavy handed, angst filled strummers. Fortunately for us, Dan Hartland is on the good side of the equation.
“Great Novels” is a thing of real beauty. Low key, but purposeful. Rock albums are easy to make – hit the drums hard, get your bassist to bang away at root notes and clang away at your Les Paul and you’re halfway there. Don’t bother about making the lyrics interesting as no one can hear them above the noise anyway. If your songs are based around an acoustic guitar and you genuinely have something you want to say, you have to work hard. Dan Hartland has worked hard on “Great Novels”.
[contentblock id=141 img=adsense.png]
It’s his second, full length album – his first “Young Man’s Game” threw every instrument he could find into the songs. For “Great Novels”, he’s taken the approach favoured by Prince – record loads of things, but then pare it down to just the stuff the songs need. There’s no wasted ornamentation here and on tracks like “In the Ranks”, strings are used sparingly but incredibly effectively. When you’re recording with talented musicians, the temptation is to get them to play over everything, which is the aural equivalent of pouring two pints of custard over your apple crumble. If a song just needs a fingerpicked acoustic guitar and vocal, like the title track, that’s all that you’ll hear.
Hartland doesn’t share the Luddite tendencies of some of his contemporaries. If a song would benefit from a subtle synthesised backdrop, he’ll use it. Cleverly blended with “real” instruments on songs like “Loved and Lonely” they broaden the sonic palette and really enhance the piece.
There’s a lovely range of styles on “Great Novels” – “Leaving Sodom” would have sat very nicely on the first Elvis Presley album – but it’s followed by “Canton”, a delicate ballad that “Heartbreaker” era Ryan Adams would have had audiences waving their cell phones in the air for, in a hot minute. There’s the inevitable folk influence, but Hartland has combined it with old school country and (whisper it) a bit of pop and made an album that puts him up there with the big boys.
As we hurtle towards Armageddon at an alarming pace, we need to remind ourselves that human beings are occasionally capable of making beautiful things. I wonder how he and Keef will pass the time? I hope he’s not scared of cockroaches…
“Great Novels” is available now via danhartland.com
The track listing is as follows:
- Leaving Sodom
- The Usual Mistake
- Loved & Lonely
- Great Novels
- In The Ranks
- British Columbia Calls
- The Flowers of Youth
- Passing St Mary’s