Songs of love and hope and airports

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8 .9 New Gods  by  Withered Hand
Released: 03/10/2014 • Label: Fortuna POP!

I once went to Bishop’s Stortford. It’s a small town near London Stansted airport. It has one anonymous high street that could be pretty much anywhere in England. You walk up the street, see nothing of interest, cross over and walk back down it – seeing the same people coming towards you in the same order as you did on the other side. There’s not much else to do.
Throw a strict religious upbringing into this uninspiring mix, and it’s perhaps little wonder that Bishop’s Stortford native Dan Willson, aka Withered Hand, never picked up a guitar until the age of 30. The fact that he has made two brilliant albums in the past five years is either evidence of a remarkable late bloom or cause to make you wonder what he could have achieved if he’d started making music in his teens. Regardless, 2009’s LP Good News, two EPs and the recently released album New Gods would do credit to a songwriter of any age or experience – as would his constant lyrical inventiveness.
Willson has spent most of his musical career in Scotland, and has been a prominent member of the Fife-based musical assemblage the Fence Collective – as the name suggests, more of a performing musical commune than a fixed array of groups and artists. New Gods features many tips of the hat to Willson’s inspirations and peers, and includes vocal and musical contributions from Scottish luminaries such as King Creosote, The Vaselines’ Eugene Kelly, Belle and Sebastian’s Stevie Jackson and Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison. However, it’s still Willson’s fragile voice and his uniquely uplifting world-view that dominate proceedings.
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In my opinion there aren’t enough boxing metaphors in contemporary songwriting, but the opening track “Horseshoe” goes a long way to redressing that balance. “Did you put a horseshoe in my glove?” he sings, emboldened and strengthened by his other half. Its gleeful, chiming chorus is outdone by “Black Tambourine”, with the sort of infectious melody Brian Wilson would be proud of.
Perhaps growing up so close to London Stansted has left Willson with a lingering fascination with airports. Las Vegas airport lobby is one of the settings for “Love Over Desire” – “I’m not getting on that silver bird until my guitar goes into the hold, my resolve collapses as the stewardess snaps – is this me pre-programmed to do as I am told? Yes it is and I am, and it makes me sick”. It’s a meditation on identity, infidelity and dislocation in the modern world, and it runs much deeper than the first listen might lead you to believe. “Fall Apart” and “Between True Love and Ruin” find him longing for his lover from afar – but these go far beyond the usual tale of a musician/traveller on the road missing a sweetheart. “Some hearts were made broken, some hearts they do mend,” he sings. “Don’t let your love go unspoken, again, don’t you know you had a friend?”
The title track is a gently lilting affair filled with wonder – “I counted lucky stars above a field in Switzerland, new gods for this ungodly man” – while “Heart Heart” is a gleeful punk-inspired stomp punctuated by moments of tranquility.
Often melancholy, introspective and deprecating, often joyous, full of redemption and marvelously melodic, New Gods is an album that will continue to reward the listener for a long time to come. Let’s just hope it’s less than five years until Withered Hand’s next full-length record.

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