Album: Darren Hayes – “The Tension & The Spark” (2004)

I need to break up this tide of Eurovision don’t I? Well unfortunately I created a bit of a backlog of albums to listen to, and all of them were just sort of alright, so I’ve been delaying their writeups. But this is the last one, the second solo album by former Savage Garden frontman Darren Hayes.

I’m always interested to see what he comes out with, he’s got a good ear for a pop tune, a distinctive voice, and a certain British angle to his way of thinking from interviews I’ve read. However whole albums have been a struggle, notably his double-CD album “This delicate thing we made”. I think quality control is an issue, and the free reign he seems to have often gets a little out of control.

So I thought rather than tackle that beast, I’d start with that ‘difficult second album’ that indicated that maybe he wasn’t going to continue hitting the same commercial heights as he did with Savage Garden. It did feel more like we were hearing the sort of music he wanted to make, however, so that’s a positive direction for him to be moving in. As tricky as some of his solo stuff gets, at least he’s not trying to pander to commerical radio and write an album of hopefuls trying to be the next “Truly Madly Deeply”.

10 Darkness – A wonderfully atmospheric feel to this opener, bleak but interesting. This is one of the album highlights, an introspective moment that develops into a more beat-driven electronic track, a sign of the album to come. I love that distorted effect throughout, and the restrained vocals. That “hold on to love” middle-eight is a lovely diversion. Hard to put my finger on where this succeeds, but it’s a really good track. I love the closing minute. He’s been singing about this past experience, and how he was lost, but then for a brief second he slips into the present tense, “I feel lost”. It’s only a little detail but that always gives me chills.

07 I like the way – Warpy intro takes us to a rockier sound, but still pretty electronic. I love the phrasing, doesn’t simply fit the beat, it’s keeping its own pace and just makes it sound so much more interesting. The song itself is a little subdued, never going for any big ‘moments’. As a result it doesn’t quite fire on all cylinders for me. It moves up a notch for the middle-eight, but I think I just haven’t clicked with this one.

06 Light – That vocal effect is a bit naff, like that 70s cartoon with the talking piano. Again we start off with a bit of a meandering tune, his voice is lovely but grates a little if you aren’t quite in the mood for it. That chorus just leaves me a bit cold, it’s a bit ploddy and laboured. Not that he’s got to reinvent the wheel or anything, but we’re only on track 3 and I’m getting a bit fidgety.

08 Popular – OK right, time for a single (Darkness was a single but got pulled in the UK at the last minute). A brave choice for a lead single given his commerical background, and while this was 2004, these satirical songs about fame were getting a bit cliche already, so that angle has never particularly interested me. The chorus is sound enough, even if the song is a bit of a stop-start mess of disjoint pieces. The breakdown in the middle is pretty good, but this all feels a bit weak somehow. I’m familiar with this song, and I want to like it, but something’s leaving me a bit cold.

09 Dublin Sky – Maybe I DID just want more Savage Garden stuff after all, it’s just hit me. He takes it back to a more acoustic sound for this one, even if his vocals have this unnecessary filter on top, why?? It’s quite comforting and pleasant, a nice little love song. As with most songs on this album, it goes on for a minute longer than necessary, but the final leg really makes this song, it’s just a really nice layered climax to the song. Lovely finish, and a surprise that it took the most MoR moment so far to get this album back on the road.

06 Hero – Back to the electronica now, I think maybe the instrumentation is the thing that’s putting me off, it’s quite cold to listen to. It’s a slow chugging track, with a really grubby-sounding bassline underneath it, but his voice just doesn’t fit this somehow. I don’t really understand why not, maybe I’ve just got too suited to the Savage Garden stuff, but it just feels like he’s being wasted on this stuff that doesn’t have any emotional resonance at all.

10 Unlovable – Now THIs is more like it. That plinky 8-bit intro is immediately ear-catching, and I’m totally into this impassioned outpouring of frustration against someone who’s made him feel like shit in the past. When that big squelchy beat kicks in, it just all falls into place with some memorable phrasing, like “You fed your love to me like crumbs to pigeons in the park, sometimes I think you’re satisfied to see me begging like a dog”. They are almost spat out, it’s a really riveting thing to listen to. Even with all this, there’s still space for a really lovely melody and some swirling synth production. It just all comes together here, a true gem in this album.

05 Void – A bit of a noisy guitary effect grinds its way through this one. I don’t really get how an predominantly electronic album can feel so ploddy and lacking in energy. This one is a prime example, just does nothing for me. A few nice intrumental phrases, but overall it’s difficult to listen to what the song’s about, it’s drowned in production.

05 I forgive you – It’s like he’s trying to make a rock album, but doesn’t like guitars. This album feels like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole a lot of the time, and this unfortunately feels like one of those songs. Even his big strength – his voice – always seems to have some sort of filter on it, and that does no favours at all. Some really shreiky tuneless bits in this clod of boring cock-rock.

05 Feel – I mean I really wanted to like this album, but it’s a struggle to listen to, quite honestly. I’ve had it on in the background while I’ve been at work, not really the best way to fully appreciate an album, but even then it felt like a drag. Another ponderously downtempo track, but I think it’s just his tone of voice or something, it’s just going right through me. Some lumpy electronic percussion moving things along, but there’s nothing to rescue this one.

06 Love and attraction – I feel like he might have been listening to Madonna’s “Music”, there are certainly familiar features in some of these tracks, even if none of them feel like an overt ripoff of it. Those breathy filtered vocals are back, really getting tiresome now. At least we’ve got a tune on this one, which really shouldn’t be a rare luxury, but let’s just take it. Lyrically this is pretty inane “Love and attraction, it’s like joy and sadness, it’s like peace and conflict” BLAH BLAH BLAH. The mountains of production dumped on this track do their best to distract from the vocals (such a shame it came to this), but there’s only so much you can do.

04 Ego – Seriously, this vocals always have this effect on them. Is it my speakers or something? Regardless, we have another lazy plodding track with a seemingly arbitrary spread of background noises, it’s just like audio filler, instead of giving the album an identity. This eye-rollingly laconic tone he’s using really doesn’t work for me, like some terrible musical. Why is this HAPPENING? It’s the aural equivalent of not being able to get to sleep on a hot night.

06 Sense of Humor – Why are all these tracks 5 minutes long? Talk about drawing it out… we’ve got another sleepy non-tempo miasma of swirly synth noises. That little aside about waking up from a coma feels oddly relatable (or hopefully it will be in a few tracks time). It gets a little more interesting when the beat gets in, and the last minute really cranks up the interest, but this is a bit of a flatliner too. Where is the love?

05 Boy – Final track, yay! Spoken bits, “stand up straight, tuck your shirt in”. Oh God, is this an autobiographical one? This feels hopelessly amateur, I can’t help it. I know he’s trying, obviously this is supposed to be about his childhood and the pressures of conforming to a lifestyle he didn’t want, and I should feel sympathetic, but I’m trying to listen to a song. It’s just a directionless mess, with a few nice vocal moments but otherwise just like a poisonous fog descending on my brain. END THIS PLEASE.

Oh God, I really didn’t think this review would come out so negative, but there we have it. It was just about manageable when I’ve just got one headphone in my ear and I’m doing some work. JUST ABOUT. It’s like he wanted to ‘go electro’ but was so used to his MOR stuff from Savage Garden that he had no idea what to do with this new sound. There are a few flashes of brilliance when he gets the right idea, but the rest is just full of these sluggishly slow tracks, with little artistic direction on the production, so it’s just a case of using random sounds and hoping something sticks.

I have a big problem to all the messing around they’ve done with his voice, practically every song had some lo-tec filter over the top of it. He’s got a great voice on the right songs, but it’s fine as it is, and none of the messing around I’ve heard on this album improves the sound at all, so why did they do it?

A disappointment I’m afraid, and a big missed opportunity. The fact that he moved on to an even more drawn-out double CD is troubling, and I’m now very reluctant to put that one on…

Keepers for the iPod: Darkness, Popular, Dublin Sky, Unlovable

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