“I went looking for the birth of popular music…and in the process I accidentally recorded an album,” Darren Hanlon told the Australian website Music Feeds. He was describing his fifth album Where Did You Come From?, a collection that tumbled out of Hanlon’s travels in the American South. A wealth of stories lie behind the recording of the album. In interviews and press materials he’s talked about the Amtrak pass he bought, the 20 trains he rode and the stories that came out of it, from the legendary and up-and-coming musicians he met and ended up collaborating with to experiences like the late-arriving man who shot at a bus because the driver wouldn’t let him on.
The one-time author of a song called “Couch Surfing”, about him moving his nightly resting place from one friend’s sofa to another, Hanlon has always had a troubadour side to his music. He’s traveled to play shows big and small (mostly small) all over the world. He’s sung songs inspired by those travels. His last couple albums were partly recorded in Portland, Oregon, though he’s from Gympie, Australia. But never before has the troubadour/adrift songwriter side of Hanlon come across so strongly within one album. In part it’s that there are a handful of more outright folksy songs here, like the first track “Salvation Army” and the group singalong “There’s Nothing on My Mind”. Even the album cover, a stylized photo of Hanlon and guitar, and the title, speak to that aspect of the album.
Yet it’s also the story behind this album and how it projects within the songs themselves. Hanlon recorded this album in New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Muscle Shoals and Clarksdale. Throughout the album, musicians he hired or had the good fortune to stumble upon join him, augment his songs with local flavor and with the aura of American musical history. “Fear of the Civil War” is a song about someone scared of history that was recorded in the famous Fame studios of Muscle Shoals, with Hanlon singing in front of Spooner Oldham, David Hood and Harvey Thompson — you can draw lines connecting them to so many legendary artists and songs. The same is true of drummer Howard Grimes, who played behind Al Green and others, and now is here with Hanlon on “Trust Your Feelings (When You Wake)”.
“The Chattanooga Shoot Shoot”, the song Hanlon wrote about that bus/gunfire incident, was recorded in an empty building that once housed the WROX radio studios, in Clarksdale. The list of musicians who played in that space will floor you — from Sam Cooke to Elvis to Muddy Waters and onward.
So Hanlon, the Australian, was walking on hallowed American ground when he recorded these songs. But they’re still very much his songs. There’s a variety-show/road-trip side of Where Do I Come From?, but it also includes very Hanlon-esque musings on love, live and death; witty and tender. There are songs here that sound very ‘traveling folksinger’, but there are also songs that flow naturally from those on the album that preceded it — perhaps his masterpiece to this point, 2010’s I Will Love You At All. Songs like “When You Go” and “My Love Is an Ocean Away” follow up on that album’s themes of infatuation, longing and heartbreak — yet with the help of some new friends.
Along with the musical legends are less famous musicians who play just as integral a role. Their presence speaks to Hanlon’s roamings, too, as each has a story behind their meeting up. “The Chattanooga Shoot Shoot” features a drummer, Lee Williams, who Hanlon saw playing at juke joints around Clarksdale. “There’s Nothing on My Mind” features brief vocal turns from a bunch of musicians he met in his travels: Riley Downing, Ziana Riley, James Wallace. For “The Will of the River”, Hanlon turns over lead vocals to Elle King, who lived upstairs from him in Nashville. He’s been telling the story that he met that song’s bass player when he tried breaking into the car Hanlon was sitting in.
Those songs are evidence of how much the album came from Hanlon living in the moment and follows a quest of sorts. “Letter From an Australian Mining Town”, which hovers and stretches out for a gorgeous eight minutes, chronicles a month Hanlon spent living in a mining town called Broken Hill, 19 hours by bus and train from Sydney. “Manhole Cover Tap” finds Hanlon rap-singing over the tap dancing sounds of a 16-year-old. Hanlon recorded the song on his phone as the teen got off his school bus, before hitting the road to go play a show in another town.
Stories like this, and the songs that bear their mark, convey a restlessness that comes across as a hunger for knowledge, experience and human connection. With the US-Australian connecting point and the number of musicians here, the album points toward a global community of itinerant songwriters and performers, like-minded souls traversing the world. It also unites the present and the past under the umbrella of an observant songwriter who is continually mastering his craft without seeming like mastery is anything he cares about. This is at once his most varied, ramshackle album and one that shows how good he’s gotten at his particular style of pop song. The album starts with folk-pop, gets moodier, has a burst of purposely rough energy and then for the last four songs settles into brilliant, outdoing-himself songwriting territory.
Those last four songs speak to ghosts of people and places, to the feelings that places bear, while smoothing out the album’s forms of folk, R&B and rock into something very much in Darren Hanlon’s wheelhouse yet also elevating his own personal style. We’re left not just contemplating music history as history of life, music as the great vehicle for storytelling, the way humans tell stories while living them — but also moved by individual moments and how he describes them. Like the people standing in their front yards, looking up at Haley’s Comet, we’re a certain amount of awestruck at the accidental, surprising kind of perfection at hand.