On David Dondero’s latest album, during a rambling traveling song, he sings of “humming along to the great Darren Hanlon.” It’s a shout-out to a kindred spirit from across the globe, a fellow traveler who once wrote an ode to the joys of living in other people’s houses, “Couch Surfing”. It’s also an acknowledgement of Hanlon as one of the great songwriters lurking in our midst, someone who hasn’t received all that much recognition yet. Hanlon’s fourth LP, I Will Love You at All, is his first for the label Yep Roc, therefore his first likely to get wide distribution outside his native Australia. It presents an opportunity for more people to hear his music. It’s the perfect time for that, as I Will Love You at All is his best album yet.
The album seems born of his wandering spirit. Hanlon recorded it in Portland, Oregon with an array of familiar Portland musicians, including most of the band Norfolk & Western and two guest vocalists/almost duet partners, Shelley Short and Alia Farah. The voices and instruments chosen (like viola, cello, euphonium, piano) complement his melodies, voice, and songs well. Hanlon is in the folk troubadour tradition in a way, and also a pop storyteller. He sometimes recalls Billy Bragg in romantic mode, or the whimsy and imagination of Jonathan Richman (“Buy Me Presents” is especially reminiscent of the ‘80s Richman and the Modern Lovers, in sound). His smart storytelling is also not that far from indie-pop bands he’s assisted in the past, like the Lucksmiths. On one level, wit is the hallmark of his songwriting, but it’s a wit that isn’t just for the sake of getting laughs or smiles. It’s a way to highlight the odd and funny nature of life, while getting at the bigger questions we all face.
Though Hanlon was in Portland for it, it’s not a work of restlessness so much as uncertainty. The cover is a house destroyed, and there’s a recurring theme of finding a home. There’s one song called “House” and another called “Home”. Both are mostly about making sense of the past. In “Home”, he’s back in his hometown trying to fit in with old friends. “House” is more explicitly about memory and how we handle the past. In nearly eight minutes, he returns to a house where he and an ex-lover once lived, trying to recapture, or figure out, the feeling of it. Alas, it’s to no use. The moral of the story is to be careful what doors of the past you peek behind. Sometimes it’s best to leave the houses of the past in “a place you can’t find them / Or else you might find someone’s changed the décor.”
Uncertainty is tied in many of these songs to the collapse of a relationship. If anyone could upturn the formula of a “break-up album”, it’s Hanlon, and he does. He makes it about memory, about stories, about the passing of time. Like in many modern films, he’s not necessarily telling one story in literal order. “Scenes from a Separation” is a vivid snapshot of the initial feeling of a split. He’s trying to be cool and nonchalant about it, by wondering how long “forever” is supposed to be, anyway (“One person’s lifetime / The history of mankind / Or the years since I turned 17?”). While the song’s protagonist tries to find the balance between carefully moving on with his life and “mourning” the relationship for a period, he asks larger questions of what love means, and how permanent it can or should be:
Maybe love takes the form of a mountain
With no choice but forever to linger
Maybe love lives in a soap bubble
At the mercy of a child’s finger
Those questions about human relationships are tied to mortality, to what affects us during the brief time that we’re on this earth. The bubbly single “All These Things” offers a litany of things that follow us, haunt us in life, from little things people told us as kids to little images we see to pivotal experiences we’ve had. Along with that comes the awareness of death’s inevitability, of course, and that’s where the stirring finale, “What Can We Say”, dwells. With a chorus of voices behind him and a funereal tone, he leads up to that eternal question, “What will we miss the most / The feel of sun / The taste of beer?,” leaving us with a few extra seconds of silence.
That song’s sense of closure is peaceful and bittersweet. Emotionally, it feels a relative of a couple of the album’s best songs, both songs of healing. “Folk Insomnia” uses a folk-song style to replicate a feeling of moving forward, but, if he’s moving forward with his life, it’s slowly, day by day. It’s a song of baby steps, of slowly figuring out where to go next. Earlier in the album, “Modern History” tells a similar story of healing while standing in place. It’s also a fascinating exposition on the way that we create stories of our lives, stories that change with each passing day. “Every single day I am born / And in the same place each night I am buried,” he memorably sings. The stories we create are what help us move forward with our lives. That fact is central to not just to Hanlon’s album, but to the entire endeavor of creating music, or of engaging with it as a listener, making the stories it tells part of our own story. In understanding that, “Modern History” becomes not just a song describing the healing process, but a song of healing for us all, as together we sing, “May the words we used in anger be unspoken / And may our hearts all be unbroken.”
- Full album stream MySpace