Ben Watt‘s ‘Hendra’ is not exactly old but no doubt slipped under a lot of people’s radars, including mine. I actually discovered it a few months back after an Amazon browse when I stumbled across Ben’s highly rated books, Patient and the memoir of his parents’ marriage ‘Romany and Tom’. Anyway, something drew me to his first solo outing in 31 years, which is quite removed from the sophisticated pop of Everything But The Girl and even further away from his electronic stuff, but these beautifully crafted songs make for a compelling listen nonetheless.
There is a lot to like about ‘Hendra’ even if you are not battling with the (not so) mundane difficulties of mid-life. The laid back feel to these acoustic/piano songs tackling issues such as loss, regret, break ups and aging are imbued with the richness of some sublime guitar strokes from Bernard Butler. Also, there is a likeable honesty to Watt’s voice and his lyrics, which focus on the minor details of everyday life, and succeed in evoking vivid tapestries we can all identify with; the awkwardness of the ordinary and the snapshots of emotive scenes adding such a strong touch of reality to these heartfelt tales that it’s impossible not to empathise.
Title track ‘Hendra’ provides a downbeat introduction with some subtle touches from Butler and light orchestration, whereas ‘Forget’ is contrastingly upbeat with an easy keyboard melody and understated guitar lines. Butler puts in some fine work and Watt delivers a great hook in the chorus; good straightforward songwriting.
Although it is a very chilled out record, it has plenty to keep it interesting, exploring all kinds of melodies. There’s the lazy piano and bluesy guitar licks making ‘Spring’ such an emotional track while the vaguely tropicalia feel to the laid back celebration of life on ‘Golden Ratio’ is reminiscent of John Martyn. The melancholic meanderings of ‘Matthew Arnold’s Field’, where Ben scatters his father’s ashes “beside a couple with sandwiches and tea”, provides a contrastingly bare prelude to the edgy guitar lines of ‘The Gun’. Here, Watt wades into the gun debate accompanied by sweeping organ chords and subtly intelligent lyrics.
In fact, death is an oft returned to subject whether it’s on the upbeat Americana tinged
‘Nathaniel’, or the haunting ‘The Levels’, featuring Dave Gilmour playing an atmospheric lap steel in this song written after the unexpected loss of Watt’s sister.
‘Young Man’s Game’ is very much about life though, and there’s a lovely vibe to this lament on aging. ‘The Heart is a Mirror’ then closes the record to an acoustic strum over a discordant synth line and a rich double bass sound; it’s a poignant note on which things shuffle to a stop.
While ‘Hendra’ may not exactly be overflowing with pop classics, it is a master class in quality songwriting and features plenty of sublime moments; well worth sitting back and immersing yourself in these emotional slices of life.
Check out the sublime new track, Gradually, from the forthcoming album Fever Dream, out next month.