Subtlety has never been Ed Hamell’s specialty, exactly. He is the sort of singer-songwriter who unleashes profanity as though it’s a conjunction, as common as “and” or “or”; he is the sort of singer-songwriter who doesn’t glorify the ugly in the world, per se, but he sure doesn’t avoid it. The story is that he lived hard before he figured out how to channel the negativity that fed his habits into music instead, and as a result, he doesn’t so much sing about hard living and shady characters as much as he inhabits these songs. He mixes anecdote and hyperbole so skillfully that the lines between the two start to blur. One of his most popular songs includes the act of smoking the ashes of a dead man; one of his top YouTube hits is a little ditty called “I Hate Your Kid”.
As such, it feels a little odd to say: The latest Hamell on Trial album, which carries the unwieldy title of The Night Guy at the Apocalypse Profiles of a Rushing Midnight is angry. It’s downright livid. Even in the context of his other albums, its rage is potent and palpable. It is violent and ugly, and its profanity bounces between hilarity and discomfort. It was recorded entirely on his cell phone — a very 2018 punk rock move — in between (or in one or two cases, during) shows on his last tour, presumably as he thought of them. Frankly, it sounds like shit, which actually works to its benefit. This is how the stream-of-consciousness rantings of an angry 60-something-year-old man should sound. Even the title of the album looks like it’s missing some punctuation.
It’s an approach that works for a while. It’s something like a mix of sea shanties, singalongs, and ballads of the drugged-up and downtrodden. The very first song is one of the best, and it sets the stage for the rest of the album. It’s called “Slap”, and it’s comprised of a list of creative ways to kill scummy people, delivered in a rhyme scheme that sounds like the last three lines of a limerick, over and over again. A pedophile priest, a wife-beater, and “the foreclose king” who delights in taking people’s homes away, they all get the spotlight just long enough to be gruesomely killed, though none gets it worse than the “Nazi fuck” who was “cut from cock to chin”.
It’s crude, but it sets the table for what’s to come, a set of tales where the sex is violent, and the violence is sexy, a storytelling style with a tradition that goes back to Dylan, Waits, Young and Biafra. It works best when Hamell is energized, often while others are singing with him; the wordless shouted chorus of “Aggie and the D.A.” almost makes you forget the explicit and profane verses, while “That’ll Be the Bloody Day” is a fine addition to the Irish drinking song canon.
Still, an awful lot of The Night Guy… is comprised of semi-ironic, pseudo-reflective slow jams, many of which are interminable stories of awful people, glorifying self-destructive (though often honorable in a vigilante sense) behavior, songs whose thoughtful gait feels designed to make their shocking lyrics punch a little harder. Hamell uses profanity as punctuation here, throwing a “fuck” in wherever he needs an extra syllable — or even where he doesn’t, as in the first chorus of “Bar Fight”: “It’s a bar fight, thank fucking god / It’s a bar fight, ain’t so fuckin’ odd,” and so on. There’s a dirty Dr. Seuss rhyme scheme to much of it, and the approach too often seems to be to one-up the shock of the previous line, as in the eye-rolling “Love at First Sight”, a song in which Cupid carries an uzi rather than a bow and arrow. Hamell goes from the slightly counter-intuitive (“She asked me for a cigarette I was high as a kite / When she stole my wallet it was love at first sight”) to the uncomfortably personal (“We could team up in a Bonnie and Clyde fashion / She rolled her eyes, pissed her pants, my heart consumed with passion”) over the course of the song, seemingly in service of little more than toying with the listener’s sense of decency.
There is an appeal to this. The material is, in Hamell’s unique way, from the heart, and the impromptu and unedited nature of much of the album gives not just a look into his twisted mind, but also a look at his process. What we get here is likely what the rough drafts of many of his songs sound like, songs that maybe he wouldn’t have turned into fully-formed studio creations. Much of it is off-putting, and Hamell’s delivery is often thin and forced, but it keeps your attention in the way talking to a particularly loquacious (and profane) uncle might.
Even so, such appeal is ephemeral, almost by design. When you’re recording songs on your cell phone, you’re not really expecting that they’re going to become lasting and beloved classics, you’re expecting to punch people in the face with them. For the listener, there’s an appeal to getting punched in the face by an album, but such a punch is only really potent on first listen. More than that, and the cleverness of much of the album wears off, revealing a smirking abrasiveness that isn’t really likable at all. In the end, The Night Guy… is only for those who have been following him for years, for those who already know that Hamell speaks to them. Everyone else would be well advised to start literally anywhere else in his extensive discography.