Review Summary: Truly, averagely, deeply.
Forgive the painfully obvious pun, but it's safe to say that Darren Hayes has been to the moon and back on his quest to define himself as a solo artist. It's been over a decade since the singer made the split from Savage Garden, and Hayes has never escaped the shadow cast by it. He's attempted everything from MOR love songs (his debut, Spin
) to electronica-driven double album conceptuality (his last effort, This Delicate Thing We’ve Made
) – and yet, despite the occasional flash of brilliance, nothing has stuck long enough to develop into what could be defined as his own individual sound. This quest continues on Hayes' fourth solo venture, Secret Codes and Battleships
and, sadly, it continues on after you've completed listening to it. A foray into synth-based electro-pop melodrama, the album presents a remarkably shiny surface with a hollow interior – in other words, it sounds fantastic but there is next to nothing remarkable about the sounds in question.
Admittedly, there are moments on Secret Codes and Battleships
where one is under the impression that this just might be what Hayes was looking for this entire time. “Talk Talk Talk,” for instance, presents itself as the pick of the lot, and is easily Hayes' best single since the tongue-in-cheek trashiness of 2004's “Popular.” Atop a driving beat and a bed of synth flourishes, Hayes marries his breathy croon with strong melodies and a chorus that doesn't so much apply the KISS principle as it does make out with it in the middle of the sweaty night-club. It's in this fully-blown embrace of the electronic pop sound Hayes has clearly been angling for that he finds himself the most comfortable, and it works wonders in his favour. Its follow-up, “Bloodstained Heart,” complements this by slowing the pace down slightly and allowing Hayes to attempt a torch anthem – a risk, certainly, but one that pays off. The result is an unexpectedly powerful centrepiece to the record, delivered with impressive gusto that feels significantly less artificial than the rest of the album.
With strengths like this in mind, it really is a pity that the album crumbles on the basis of its multiple weaknesses. For one thing, Secret Codes and Battleships
takes itself far, far too seriously. If you look at any of the best songs that Hayes has been involved with, the man himself sounds like he is truly enjoying himself and engaging with the music he is backed by. Predominantly, that's just not the case here – and a more playful nature would have made the album a much less jarring listen. The “love conquers all” schmaltz that oozes through the cracks of practically every song on the record grows incredibly weary at a very fast pace, certainly not assisted by the hugely over-laboured lyricism and outstandingly ham-fisted metaphors. “I am an island,” moans Hayes on opener “Taken By the Sea,” “and you are the ocean.” Truly. Not to be outdone, “Stupid Mistake” offers listeners the sub-Livejournal heartbreak of “I don't want a stain/and I don't want your love upon my hands.”
The album features several different producers – Hayes himself included – in a move to possibly bring as wide a variety of sounds and ideas to the table as possible. The ambition is certainly admirable, but it's definitely a case of too many cooks when it comes to the album from a musical perspective. It has all the subtle nuances of a karaoke backing track, plastic and often quite lifeless with its tinny beats and cooing keyboards. “Roses” is the worst offender on the record, a cringe-worthy exercise in well-intentioned motivational sap, complete with grand piano tinkling and a beat that was probably found in the bin of Ryan Tedder. It's when this song comes on that faith is completely lost in the album, ultimately a number that more or less sounds like a wussier version of Nickelback's “If Today Was Your Last Day” - and sounding wussier than Nickelback is a feat in itself.
Darren Hayes is clearly a smart, talented guy. A great performer and a know-all veteran of Australia's pop scene, he continues to have a strong following for his music both here and abroad. With all of this in mind, exactly why he continues to make such grandiose missteps in his solo recorded discography is anyone's guess. There is a great album left in Hayes yet, but Secret Codes and Battleships
just isn't it.