Right from the first seconds of the opening title track of Hefner’s fourth album, the synthesizers say it all. Sparkling squiggles of vintage analogue warmth flood the mission statement of Dead Media, as leader Darren Hayman spins a languid two-minute epitaph for “the dead, dead media”. Similarly, the CD sleeve details every hodgepodge piece of equipment used throughout, with adoring anecdotes to boot.
Thus marks a brave new era for Hefner, and none too soon. In the half-decade or so since the London band debuted its wry slant of Britpop (sharp enough to draw countless comparisons to Elvis Costello), there has been a gradual decline in Hayman’s songwriting skills. What was first so charming about the Hefner formula — lovesick, self-proclaimed hymns to women by way of cigarettes, alcohol, God, coffee, and Britain itself — began to feel claustrophobic and redundant after just one great album, Breaking God’s Heart.
Breaking God’s Heart‘s uneven follow-up, 1999’s The Fidelity Wars, found Hayman whining too often about too many of the same subjects. While it was cute to hear him match bittersweet memories to different brands of smokes on “The Hymn for the Cigarettes”, such adolescent attention to post-breakup detail grew grating by album’s end. Then Boxing Hefner, a collection of rare and unreleased gems from the band’s early career, proved giddily great enough to make one wonder just what had happened with Wars.
This was more than your average sophomore slump, since Hefner’s third album, last year’s We Love the City, felt even more irksome and uninspired still, despite its baffling mass of critical praise. Sweeps of strings and horns couldn’t cover Hayman’s familiar complaints and especially awful lyrical splotches (“You are my girlfriend / Not Molly Ringwald / So why can’t you stay here tonight”), and so it seemed time to write off Hefner altogether.
All this exposition is just to illustrate what an immense relief it was to hear Dead Media, as surefooted a return to form as could be. It’s not only the collective sigh of lush synth experimentation that makes these songs shine so bright. Hayman has wisely allowed for more input and organic chemistry from his cohorts, so that Media marks a group effort instilled with a shared sense of urgency.
So while Hayman’s pipes are still at the center of the formula, you’ll hear more biting vocal responses from Amelia Fletcher (of Heavenly and Marine Research fame), as well as the gruff, soulful growl of Jack Hayter highlighting “Half a Life”. And on the closing “Home”, an unraveled ball of rustic twang, nearly every band member gets a turn at the mic.
Unlike with Belle & Sebastian, such delegation of creative responsibilities in Hefner helps to really open up an album that, with so much insular studio trickery, could’ve easily felt cold and cloistered. It’s a tad ironic that Hefner had to throw a slew of electronic effects into the mix to finally sound like a true folk band again. And who would’ve guessed that an album loaded up with a full plate of 15 tracks might be so easy to listen to multiple times in a row?
All theory aside, it’s the strength of those dozen and three songs that hold Dead Media together. “Trouble Kid”, which Hayman calls a “shameless . . . stupid, dumb pop song” in the press packet, is all copped hooks and retro keyboard fun, leaving pretensions at the door in the name of entertainment. “When the Angels Play Their Drum Machines” is equally kitschy, but Hayman’s meek insistence to “let me let you let me down again” brings rise to a certain soft sweetness.
Then there’s “China Crisis”, a sublime duet where Fletcher calmly cuts through Hayman’s cowardly boy bullshit the way we’ve all always wanted to. It’s followed by the single “Alan Bean”, where Hayman addresses a constant urge to give up, while some of the album’s prettiest analogue embellishment seeps in. How very appropriate.
Listening to Dead Media, it seems a godsend that Hefner didn’t give up after all, and that we didn’t quite give up on Hefner. Four albums in, the band has succeeded the geekish Britpop whine that threatened to sink its career, struck upon brave new seas of musical exploration, and knocked out some downright classic tunes.
Few bands would be courageous enough to attempt such a drastic sonic overhaul after such a long time at it, and even fewer would produce their best album yet as a result. Here’s looking forward to the future of Hefner . . .