Van Hunt is in between projects at the moment, and it is to our benefit. While Hunt toils in his laboratory, that gap between recordings has delivered an 11-song collection of tracks from his vault, Use in Case of Emergency. Released through his website, www.vanhunt.com, the virtual album revisits the past 15 years or so of Hunt’s many muses. Some songs are ideas Hunt sketched out for other artists, some are original conceptions of songs before the record company (Capitol) interceded, and others are simply dusted off tracks that further exemplify how Hunt’s greatness is rooted in the unpredictable. No two tracks are alike, even when they share the same lyrics.
Among the most prolific musicians a recording studio has ever known, Van Hunt’s archive is brimming with unreleased material. Use in Case of Emergency summarizes the different compass points Hunt explored before and after the release of his 2002 self-titled debut through 2006’s On the Jungle Floor. (These pages have already covered the abysmal fact that his finest work, Popular (2008), still remains unreleased after a falling out with Blue Note.)
What listeners hear on this release is a musician breaking out of preconceived styles. Though there are obvious elements of R&B in Hunt’s music, it is foolhardy to describe him as an R&B artist exclusively, as music executives and music fans alike are wont to do. Use in Case of Emergency offers compelling evidence to the contrary. “Life of a former rock star looks good on me”, Hunt sang on “N the Southern Shade” (a track off Popular). On “Man of the Year”, Hunt is that rock star. A precursor to “Hot Stage Lights”, a crowd favorite at Hunt’s concerts, “Man of the Year” is the hard rock cousin to the funkified version that ultimately appeared on his second album, On the Jungle Floor.
In its unbridled form, “Man of the Year” boats a sinister chord progression that anchors Hunt’s tale of worship and seduction. A serpentine guitar riff connects the verses before a bridge takes the song on a brief interstellar detour to a nebula of spacey funk. The rawness of the track, to these ears, is a perfect conduit for the lyrics, which are far from bashful!
The polar opposite of the playful pomp that dresses “Man of the Year” is “Hidden Charm”. If there’s a reason to add Use in Case of Emergency to a music collection, it is because of this song. Embroidered with a serene urging, the lyrics are quite possibly the most poetic Hunt has ever committed to melody. That melody lingers in the mind like a good dream. Though certainly open to other interpretations, “Hidden Charm” encapsulates the brave, bold, and sometimes uncertain journey that artists and musicians embark on when they pursue their life’s vocation. Hunt sings, “Our lady of fortune and fame / Maybe your baby or just an elusive mermaid / It’s time to make a move toward her way / Use your personality to block her getaway”. There’s reward in persisting, in spite of the mirages that obscure truth and confound a sense of self. Written well before his own solo career took flight, “Hidden Charm” illustrates Hunt’s intuition about fame just before it devolves into a sycophantic adoration (similarly, he revealed his insight about popularity on the sublime “Popular”).
For new listeners, Use in Case of Emergency is by no means a conventional entree to the music of Van Hunt. Either of his first two albums provides a more consistent and solid introduction. If anything, this set is a generous offering to those who have already been turned onto his music and want to delve a little deeper towards detecting his creative process at work. Hearing how an idea or theme is manifested in different variations promises to raise an eyebrow or two. Note how “Anything (To Get Your Attention)”, a track from Van Hunt is reworked two distinct ways on Use in Case of Emergency (“ATTENTION!” and “N.E.Thing2getura10chin”). Van Hunt straddles many appeals and incorporates just as many back into his music.
Use in Case of Emergency maintains that Van Hunt brings a quality to modern music that is not contrived. It is authentically his. Hunt abides by his own standards, which are often conflict with the standards the music industry sets for artists. He has no need to funnel his vision through whatever producer is currently in demand when he has coffers of his own ideas to express. Now that he is not tethered to a major record label, listeners will hear the most undiluted iterations of Van Hunt’s talent and realize why he is important for our musical health. Use in Case of Emergency is his first gift in the new paradigm he has created for himself. Just have a fire extinguisher nearby if things get too hot.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.