That voice: courter of descriptive adjectives, siren to unsentimental ambiguities, intangible like a cherub and translucent like a ghost. Shyly defiant of logic and our better judgment, pitched tightrope high, that voice seems to say that no, everything is not OK, but yes, everything will be OK. That voice is Jeff Hanson’s, St. Paul, Minnesota singer-songwriter formerly of the Midwestern rock outfit M.I.J.; while the initial reaction it invokes is one of disbelief (newcomers to his songs will always, without fail, mistake him for a woman), it’s actually a manifestation of something much deeper than the science of timbre. This is singing as some kind of plainclothes sorcery, an incantation of customary language as something more expressive and fantastic.
Following his 2003 solo debut Son, Hanson’s new self-titled record continues to use his voice as the gateway to some truly sublime songs. It opens with “Losing a Year”, whose anorexic dirge-melody nearly nods off around the four-minute mark, only to be rescued by the beautiful full band arrangement. Swooping in like a deus ex machina, the crystalline arrangement (played entirely by Hanson, with the exception of keyboards and strings) is waxy and poetic like a Big Star ballad, compounded by that claustrophobically present Mick Fleetwood drum sound. It’s not until the string section enters (pushing the song to an unnoticeably long seven-minute mark) that “Losing a Year” really lays on the heavy heart-accelerating sighs.
A handful of songs on Jeff Hanson employ this fleshed-out balance of tight-pocketed instrumentation and enchanted vocals. “Welcome Here”, the record’s most propulsive and brawny track, bounces like Britpop on a trampoline of California harmonies. The optimistic, mid-tempo “I Know Your Name” floats on clouds of strings, while “This Time It Will” and “Long Overdue” feast on a tumbling chord progression and swooning pop hook, respectively. Hanson’s learned to use not only his voice, but his carefully aimed arrangements to provoke a desired emotional effect.
Other times, Hanson is accompanied only by acoustic guitar, his fingers fluttering on the strings in little manufactured tempest swirls. On these less adorned songs — mainly “Now We Know” and “Someone Else” — his sense of melody is more adventurous and untamed, the succession of notes unexpected yet still endearing. His voice becomes starkly accentless on these tunes, rigidly upright with proper pronunciation; it’s at these times that you can’t help but wonder if his voice is sped-up in the studio, as it reaches near-inhuman tonal heights.
If there’s a fault in Hanson’s songs, and Jeff Hanson in particular, it’s that they eventually reach a dainty sensibility of anonymity. It’s difficult to match up particular melodies with titles, and titles with sets of lyrics, and sets of lyrics with particular melodies. The continued comparisons to Elliott Smith remain well-founded; from the XO-branded lush arrangements to the incidentally shared label (Kill Rock Stars), Jeff Hanson continues to recall Smith in ways unavoidable. Hanson’s stunning melodies, acoustic guitar approach, even the way he sometimes hiccups the lines from his throat: all these traits often trace a straight line to Smith’s style. Unlike Smith, Hanson’s lyrics are nearly devoid of all metaphor and imagery, making them read more like raw diary entries than diary entries seduced into song craft. This means that often the lyrics are the least important aspect of Hanson’s songs, as they lack any concrete ideas to hold onto. He sings of uncertainty, hesitation, and a continuing reassessment of a life, but we’re really most interested in how he makes those subjects sound. Wrapped in cream-colored duvets of downy pop, tripping from major chord to minor chord, summoned and decreed by one thing: that voice.