Review Summary: Soft-spoken Australian wordsmith returns to the fold with an exceptional new album.
When it comes to the surprisingly extensive discography of Queensland’s Darren Hanlon, some might call his consistency boring or unadventurous. This is a particularly unfair judgement of his body of work – one might suggest, instead, that a better descriptive term of his steady consistency between records would be reliable. Want some breezy, folksy pop music that doesn’t demand too much of you? Darren’s your man. Clever lyrics with a slew of wordplay and charming observational humour? Go see Darren. Fun, sweet-natured and enjoyable music for those upbeat moods sound good? Practically any of Hanlon’s albums will do the trick. Better yet, why not try his new album, I Will Love You At All
? No, you’re not going to get any kind of dramatic departure here, but it’s hardly necessary when the music is already this consistently – and reliably – good.
Across ten tracks and forty minutes, Hanlon does a thorough job in delivering a proper follow-up to 2006’s Fingertips and Mountaintops
– excluding the B-sides and rarities collection that came out in-between then and now. If you’ve taken interest in any of his previous work, there’s essentially no reason why you wouldn’t find something to enjoy here. Everything that’s made Hanlon such a listenable performer in the past is not so much rehashed as reinforced. From the rough-around-the-edges bedroom production to the easily-memorised choruses, I Will Love You At All serves as a reminder of the man’s talents in his field of work. His arrangements are of the sweet-and-simple variety – though they occasionally flourish into a string quartet section, a sax solo or keyboard pattern, most everything circulates around Hanlon’s typically-Australian voice and either his trusty acoustic guitar or his ukulele. It will be perceived by some as a back-to-basics approach; but really, it comes across more as just the natural progression to suit this kind of music.
In particular, Hanlon’s inimitable songwriting style delivers on some of his finest moments yet. “Scenes From A Separation”, for instance, is a perfect example of a defining factor when it comes to great songwriting: taking either an idea or situation one could class as overly-familiar and writing about it in a way you’d never thought about before. Over a standard waltz beat and perfect boy-girl harmonies, Hanlon documents a clean-cut breakup and reflects on the way his perspectives have changed on account of the relationship’s demise. Lines fly by with subtle devastation: “We were ‘together forever’/But then again, what the hell does that mean?/One person’s lifetime, the history of mankind or the year since I turned seventeen?” It’s exceptionally clever lyricism, particularly when he sums the entire affair up near the end - “I wouldn’t trade one heartbroken minute for one year of dull happiness.”
Elsewhere, he takes on similarly recognisable circumstances with equal amounts of poise and wit – opener “Butterfly Bones” uses the title as a simile for a fragile body in the hospital, while the country shuffle of “If Only My Heart Were Made of Stone” deals quite well with the finer points of conflicting human emotions in spite its 111-second running time. He even manages to make a lack of sleep interesting: “I’m lying here, dividing sheep by the square root of ten,” he laments on the brilliant fun of “Folk Insomnia,” which sounds like a collaboration of a young Robert Zimmerman and Hanlon’s former touring partner Jeffrey Lewis.
The peak of the record – both musically and lyrically – comes in the form of eight-minute centrepiece “House”. Hanlon’s masterful storytelling immerses you entirely in this seemingly simple tale of encountering a house the protagonist used to live in. The attention to detail here is immaculate: the sights and sounds that Hanlon portrays will capture the imagination immediately, building to the suspense of what might happen if the character knocks on the door. The ending won’t be given away, but just look at these lyrics that come straight after ringing the bell. “The house gave an echo from inside its belly/Sounds I recalled from days I’d left my key/A footstep. A clang. Someone turned down the telly/A shadow at the door – it was too late to flee.” Hanlon’s pure poetry is engaging, relatable and a stunning companion to the folk rock background – it’s this track alone that makes the record an essential listen for fans.
I Will Love You At All
isn’t going to start musical revolutions, send critics ape-*** or win over people not sold on Darren Hanlon’s style. Then again, that’s not quite the purpose it sets itself up for – Hanlon is at the stage where he is not creating music to be impactful on anyone but himself and his musical followers. It’s an album of imagination, memory, interpersonal relationship and a slightly more mature view on the world since his last go-around – and, depending on how much time you’re willing to give it, it might just be one of the best Australian albums of the year.