Throughout his 30-plus years in the business, Ben Watt has amassed enough changes, struggles, and accomplishments for several lifetimes. Along with his long-term partner and current spouse, Tracey Thorn, he spent 15 years as half of the influential, eclectic pop group Everything But the Girl, whose career in itself underwent an entire progression of stylistic, commercial, and creative ups and downs and twists and turns. During that time, he also was nearly killed by a rare autoimmune disorder, and published an acclaimed memoir of the experience.
After Everything But the Girl shuttered their act at the turn of the millennium, Watt followed his tastes for electronic dance music, namely mellow, progressive house music, and founded Buzzin’ Fly Records and its Strange Feelin’ offshoot. After a highly-successful decade-long run as label boss, producer, and DJ, Watt in 2013 scaled Buzzin’ Fly back to catalogue-only status, expressing his desire to return to songwriting and playing instruments. In a musical and artistic sense, then, Hendra finds Watt following up his early, pre-Everything But the Girl solo work, the sparse, heartfelt North Marine Drive and the Summer Into Winter collaboration with British cult singer/songwriter Robert Wyatt.
But there’s more to the story. Thirty years ago, Watt was a talented artist and also something of a romantic idealist. In 1988, in his mid-twenties and without children, he sang about how hearing Enrico Caruso sing changed his life and “If I only do one thing / I’ll sing songs to my father, I’ll sing songs to my child”. This pastoral pining, however, was set against a backdrop of “bombs on white trains” and fears of annihilation. If Watt was a dreamer, he dreamt with his eyes open.
Hendra, however, draws on a life experienced well into middle age. Watt has that child, three of them, actually, and he knows first-hand how difficult it can be raising kids, juggling jobs, and keeping marriages and careers alive and vital. Like Thorn’s post-Everything But the Girl solo work, Hendra deals with the give-and-take between adulthood and nostalgia, between artistic expression and domestic duty, and it does so head-on. If its weariness is authentic, so is its sense of hope salvaged and renewed. And this authenticity, more than the songs themselves, is what makes it special.
The songs aren’t half bad either, mind. Hendra is populated with characters who are struggling with their conflicting emotions, trying to accept where their lives have ended up without feeling like they have disappointed themselves. “You know what they say about silver and lining”, says the narrator of the title track, in a browbeaten tone that suggests he’s not buying the cliché. Later in the song, he makes an admission that works well in describing the experience of Hendra as a whole. “I must allow these feelings”, he says, “… but sometimes I turn the radio up so loud just to drown them all.” Similarly, despite the heady subject matter, Hendra has plenty of moments that are ripe for pure listening.
Watt has always known his way around a melody. “Forget” rides on a deceptively simple, propulsive soft-rock rhythm that recalls vintage Fleetwood Mac, or maybe Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era Wilco. “Who am I foolin’ when I say I have no regrets?” Watt wonders, but here he sounds like someone who has made peace with his past, as the almost jaunty chorus suggests. “Golden Ratio”, with its jazzy guitar and double bass, is as invigorating and fresh as Everything But the Girl’s landmark debut, Eden, while the mini-anthem “Spring” projects all the beauty and relief of a tough storm weathered.
Despite its connection to Watt’s deep past, Hendra is a purely contemporary-sounding singer-songwriter record. In 2014, that means it has a strong ’70s vibe, with Rhodes electric pianos, agreeably straightforward, reverb-free drums, and analog synthesizer flourishes. Producer Ewan Pearson, who has also helmed Thorn’s recent work, is best known for his dealings in dance music and remixes. But he actually creates a clean, organic feel for Hendra. The towering synth sweep that opens the album, for example, is attention-getting and unique without distracting from the songwriting at hand. Nicely done.
Watt has also called on guitarist and arranger extraordinaire Bernard Bulter, the former Suede member and long-time collaborator-at-large, to lend a hand in the studio. True to form, Butler adds some vital shading and tone to the songs without overwhelming them. He provides a juicy blues riff, for example, that suits the otherwise rather rote gun-control lament “The Gun”. And no-less-iconic a guitarist than David Gilmour turns up on “The Levels”. His sonorous pedal steel tones add to the airy atmosphere and Watt’s reflective lyrics and vocals to the point that the track literally seems to float away.
As genuine as it is, Hendra is not without its less-than-stellar moments. The more uptempo “Nathaniel” is a tribute to latter-day Morrissey, from Butler’s muscular, rockabilly guitar riff to Watt’s measured enunciation of the titular name. Alas, as far as Moz references go, it comes across more like a serviceable album track than a single. Those who are partial to ’70s-style singer-songwriter fare will find much of the album too familiar-sounding, too homogenous, too safe. And Watt’s thoughtful words, like those of all singer-songwriters on occasion, at times work against him. “Young Man’s Game” is Watt’s most obvious attempt to deal with age. When he says, “We’re drinking Jägerbombs but we’re still on our feet”, he comes across more as embarrassing dad than weathered survivor. And, arguably, only a Brit could, on a tender track called “The Heart Is a Mirror”, assert that “so much of love is so neutral and so misread”, as if it were a shade of paint rather than an emotion.
But Watt isn’t jaded. He’s just wiser. The idealist has become a realist. On the evidence of Hendra, instantly a nearly essential album in a decorated career, it’s a role that suits him.