Fink found his metier with the 'Biscuits for Breakfast' album, and ever since it's been about honing and progressing that vibe, originally borrowed from the recordings of Zero 7, but which Fink has steeped in extra 'tea', as it were… Again, possibly at another crossroads in his life (he has expressed an interest in more production work and songwriting for others – he co-wrote an early Amy Winehouse song, 'Half Time', which can be heard on her posthumous collection 'Lioness: Hidden Treasures') Hard Believer is distinctively Fink, but with darker undertones, more use of studio sonics. 'Hard Believer' is the first release on the R’COUP’D imprint, a label newly created by Greenall with the backing of the Ninja Tune team, and was recorded over a two week period in Hollywood's Sound Factory studios with producer Billy Bush.
'Hard believer' is a term used in the Deep South of America, and means somebody who is difficult to persuade, and who requires proof. 'Won't you believe me now'? Fink asks in that distinctive timbre on the title track, the sound of someone who needs to sleep, yet shot through with neon-light clarity as he processes his thoughts, as if we are listening to Fink's diary entries. And appropriately enough, given the phrase's geographical origination, 'Hard Believer's' gently foot stomping beat and a circular blues riff continues his love affair with the blues, musically and lyrically, which goes back to 'Hush Now' on 'Biscuits for Breakfast'.
Although Fink often sings in a tonally restrictive, spoken word style, 'Green and the Blue' sees Fink open his lungs a little, singing with style and panache. And lyrically, he has that rare ability to articulate poetically, but straightforwardly: 'Pen and paper seems so permanent/Every line of every letter that I never sent' is the fantastic opening couplet, and from simple acoustic beginnings the song opens up, a mini-rush of melancholic euphoria before petering out in a swirl of guitars and effects. 'Green and the Blue' encapsulates the direction 'Hard Believer' is heading in general, the more ambitious sonic palette throughout playing a greater part than his previous work.
With a foreboding beat, dub bass and effects, like PiL on valium, and Jah Shaka on the echo effects, 'White Flag' is very much in the Massive Attack vein a la the super dark atmospherics of 'Rising Son'. The particularly hard and simple bass-key piano sound makes for – as the title suggests – a foreboding proposition as much as Del Naja, Daddy G and co. ever mustered; a turbulent, dark and stormy brew before glimpses of relative calm seep reassuringly through.
'Pilgrim', a collaboration with songwriter Blair Mackichan, co-writer of 'This Is The Thing' from Fink’s 2007 'Distance and Time' album, and Honesty' from 2011’s 'Perfect Darkness' album, is perhaps the most commercial, radio friendly track of them all. It's a straightforward acoustic rhythmic rocker of sorts with strong hints of the gently building style of Radiohead. 'From small beginnings come big endings', Fink endlessly repeats as it speeds towards closure, the song abruptly trailing once again in a gently moody sea of sound and textures.
The poignant and melodic 'Shakespeare' is another song that rises to a climax, a very personal song about tender young love: 'Oh, why, why did they teach us Shakespeare when you're only 16, no idea what it all means/ Oh, Romeo, oh, Romeo, he thinks it's a love thing, all masks and kisses from the balcony/ It's deeper than that, its a fucking tragedy/Taught me so much about love, and yet I learned nothing'.
'Looking Too Closely' revisits the faster acoustic propulsion of 'Pilgrim', a repeated guitar motif portraying a little more light than dark, although the constantly repeating piano chord suggests portent on the horizon. 'This is a song about someone else, so don't worry yourself', Fink tells himself, for once trying to unentangle himself from all the doom and gloom within his soul. Not that he wallows in it, but the often jovial Fink in real life obviously can't help but speak from the heart on record.
'Too Late' is a little more uplifting thanks to the piano, crashing cymbals, and harmonising oohing, and yet the lyrics point in a different direction: 'Too late to start again' sings Fink, a statement both of resignation and acceptance in the face of our singular (and collective) weaknesses and failings, which Fink articulates on behalf of us all. And then there's the closer 'Keep Falling', a song with just voice and rhythm guitar, and what could be a rallying inner call. 'It's alright' he intones; we keep falling, but we get there, together…. It's a statement of quiet desperation, and yet Fink, like all good survivors, suddenly witnesses a clearer vision, a possible path, for better or worse… A hard believer indeed.
Moody and haunting throughout, with the odd glimpse of optimism poking its head around the corner, particularly towards the end, 'Hard Believer' is Fink's best album yet, a fully formed work that flows superbly throughout, with much thanks to the economical and creative playing of Thornton and Whittaker, and the production skill of Billy Bush. Musically, It's all about moods and atmospherics with Fink, and happy it ain't, as he battles demons and feelings of failure; the almost resigned vibe emanating from Fink's soul makes you wonder if redemption is at hand. And yet, for all that, the persistent melancholy ultimately shines a life-affirming light. The final two words on 'Hard Believer' are 'It's alright'. Indeed, it really is.