Finally, her debut album. A work that does not feature any of her previous output, and yet remains unmistakably hers, such are the icy textures of her distinctive voice, and a largely moody sound that largely favours the flavours of timeless folk, modern electronics, and choral symphonics.
Always on the go, touring here, there and everywhere, there is a hard work ethic within Hackman, and a steely determination, perhaps galvanised by going to the esteemed private school Bedales – a sponsorship enabled her to go to this fee-paying school – where creativity seems to be thoroughly encouraged, and which during this time Hackman picked up the guitar and taught herself. Bedales has been called ‘a bohemian idyll with bite’, and Hackman is one of many well known artistic and creative alumni who have set foot there…
Now, ostensibly a singer songwriter with a six-string in tow, she has fashioned something unique and timeless – in part due to her having no formal musical training – apparent from the beginning of her recording career when the That Iron Taste mini-album came out a couple of years back. Then, as now, Hackman displayed no signs of virtuosity, or a desire for flair for flair’s sake; her economical, yet melodic style, reminiscent of Laura Veirs, was an early inspiration. For her, the guitar is simply a tool, to support the songs, lyrics and melodies, of which she has many in abundance.
Softly spoken, and beguilingly expressive within the limited parameters of her range, nevertheless Hackman has a voice she is in command of; never overtly imploring or showy, and always expressed with understated passion, although you could be forgiven for thinking that she has a cold, emotional detachment to the matters in hand.
At other times, the vocals are so hushed, and back in the mix, as to be difficult to make out, a sometimes regrettable modern trait; where the ‘sound’ of the voice is given more prominence than the actual lyrical content. Live, you expect the lyrics to be often lost within the messy confines of a live mix, but on record it is frustrating to have to lean forward to hear and make out the words.
Throughout We Slept At Last, synths, guitars, effects and minimal percussion are the main players within the overall folk-noir template, expertly put together by Hackman and producer Charlie Andrew, who is responsible for most of her previous recordings, and is the man at the controls of both alt-j’s albums.
Lead track, the evocative Drown, provides the template for much of the album, Hackman’s ethereal voice put through some effects, before resorting to its natural sound, the subtly fluid melody encased within a deceptively complex structure, and with guitar, as usual, back in the mix. Thematically, Drown also acts as a prologue for the album; a search for peace and truth, and a constant tug-of-war between the competing needs of privacy and independence, and the natural desire for companionship and co-operation. Sleep is, of course, the ultimate refuge of the living, and throughout, as in title too, We Slept at Last points to the desire to sleep, where thoughts are intimately and privately played-out and processed, ready for another day…
Before I Sleep elegantly encapsulates this: ‘Burning, the roads through my mind are on fire/For the light you shed was blinding,’ Hackman quietly, yet coolly intones, while synth, finger picked guitar, and a little distorted electric guitar track the acoustic. The disquiet of the lyrics are complimented by the bittersweet tones of the music, its gently brooding synths, and ever-so quiet brushed percussion, the song swelling before falling away, allowing the finger-picked guitar foundation to speak alone. It’s a beautiful track, a highlight of the album.
Meanwhile, Ophelia gives a flavour of what some of the songs sounded like before the studio beckoned, sounding like a demo at first, just acoustic, voice and some keys, before the second verse shows how it sounds with full production values incorporated, but nothing tangibly added except a little percussion. I like both ways, and it’s another strong number, melody to the fore, pastoral folk in style, while the more expansive and experimental Open Wide features electric guitar lines throughout, a crashing chord shifting the mood mid-song towards a deeper and darker place. ‘The petrol in your head, the fire at your door, still hungry.’ she sings.
Elsewhere, there’s the playful envy of Skin – ‘I’m jealous of your neck, the narrow porcelain plinth of flesh, it goes to hold your head’ – the folk-waltz style of Claude’s Girl, and the more strident Animal Fear, a little more dynamic, and a welcome variation on the melancholy vibes prevalent on most of the rest of the album. It’s the closest thing to a toe-tapping, head nodder, the clattering percussion featuring liberally sprinkled shotgun samples, as Hackman lays on the animal/hunting metaphors. These animalistic metaphors, a continuation of previous tracks such as Cannibal (released on That Iron Taste), are made all the more enticing via her somewhat deadpan delivery.
On the outside, you could be forgiven for thinking Hackman looks every bit the bohemian it-girl, but judging from this album, and all her work put together so far, there lurks a questioning, assertive, restless, sometimes acerbic, sometimes visceral, and occasionally witty young woman, one who takes her music very seriously, and who doesn’t (or can’t) do pretty or wistful, when it comes to songwriting.