Hefner clearly don’t intend to be taken entirely seriously.
On their previous releases, the band’s quirky, lo-fi pop has been laced with a healthy dose of irony, accentuated by vocalist Darren Hayman’s self-deprecating confessional narratives that rarely stray far from the arena of post-adolescent, romantic agonies and failures. (In addition to that witty, warts-and-all songwriting, the group’s albums and singles have even worn a certain tongue-in-cheekness on their sleeves, often featuring Biff-style renderings of kitschy teen-romance comic book artwork.)
On the face of it, the loose, bittersweet melodies of We Love the City seem to continue in the same whimsical vein as 1999’s The Fidelity Wars, albeit with slightly more polished and expanded arrangements.
Musically, the sing-along quality of many of the band’s bouncy, jangly tunes has been enhanced by augmenting the horn component of the previous album. Indeed, the community-singing/populist vibe becomes so pronounced on “The Greedy Ugly People” and (especially) “She Can’t Sleep No More”, that some critics’ assessments of Hefner as a pub-rock version of Belle & Sebastian begin to sound quite appropriate.
And in keeping with that playful, mildly retro sound, you would expect the lyrical dimension of We Love the City to be characterized by a similar ironic distance. After all, Hayman wryly reminds listeners at the start of the album’s opening song (the title track) that “this is sixth-form poetry, not Keats or Yeats”. However, while much of this material bears out Hayman’s self-mocking description of his own songwriting, it does so perhaps not in the way he intended.
We Love the City is indeed “sixth-form poetry”, but in the sense that it appears to err on the side of earnestness, its irony somewhat lost in the mix this time around. Although, traditionally, many of Hefner’s songs have been self-centered psychodramas of lovelorn angst, they’ve previously worked so well because Hayman always seems to be sending himself up.
Hayman’s songwriting has a certain amount in common with that of Morrissey, Jarvis Cocker (Pulp), and David Gedge (in his Wedding Present days). But while Morrissey’s camp, grandiose world-weariness, Cocker’s snide intimacy, and Gedge’s fraught agonizing could never be taken literally, Hayman’s lyrics and his delivery on We Love the City unfortunately can. On songs of unhappy love like “Good Fruit” and the Pulp-flavoured “Painting and Kissing”, there’s precious little in his lyrics or his expressionless singing to clue listeners in to the fact that this is all a knowing performance.
Of course, he may not intend it to be. Talking about We Love the City on Hefner’s Web site, Hayman has said that this is a more “direct, honest, heartfelt album” than its predecessors. If that’s true, it makes the lyrics even harder to listen to. Despite the light-hearted feel of many of the arrangements, Hayman’s “heartfelt” tales become simply “embarrassing, not merely awkward”, to quote from the title track.
If much of Hayman’s writing here resembles sixth-form poetry in being a tad too earnest, it also deserves that designation because of its flawed attempts to express some kind of, ahem, concept. “We Love the City” and the Blur-ish number, “The Greater London Radio”, for example, seek to make an analogy between romantic relationships and the relationships people have with their urban environment. In the case of the title song in particular, although much is said, it’s never quite clear what point Hayman is trying to make.
No less muddled is the attempt—apparently—to juxtapose schoolyard romance with politics on “The Day That Thatcher Dies”. With such an excellent title, you’d hope for a song to match. Again, the point is never really clear and the song descends—appropriately enough—into the twee sounds of two small boys singing “Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead” from The Wizard of Oz. Biting socio-political commentary indeed.
Some might say that We Love the City has universal pop appeal. But to these ears, Hefner are starting to sound decidedly parochial. For a while in the ‘90s, cute insular pop steeped in mundane Englishness was a viable commodity, but it’s all become a bit hackneyed now. Not only is much of We Love the City rather dull and unremarkable, it also becomes quite annoying. Rather than grow on you, the album’s simple catchiness starts to niggle and Hayman’s whiny voice quickly becomes irritating.