Tentative Review #82

Peter Hammill
And Close As This

(released 1986)


Track:Rating:
1. Too Many Of My Yesterdays****1/2
2. Faith**1/2
3. Empire Of Delight****1/2
4. Silver*****
5. Beside The One You Love***
6. Other Old Cliches****
7. Confidence****1/2
8. Sleep Now***1/2

Personnel:

Peter Hammill: vocals, keyboards

Credits:

All tracks written by Peter Hammill except "Empire Of Delight", written by Emerson/Hammill.


Comments:

1986 was a rather unusual year in the Peter Hammill catalogue. Hammill released two albums in this calendar year; the response to these albums for his fan-base is, at the very least, rather telling. One of these albums was Skin, a moderately commercialized prog-pop venture (qv. an earlier Tentative Review for a more elaborate version of my thoughts of this work). Although most PH fans would presumably be tolerant of the album, few would rate it among his best.

The other album was And Close As This, which many diehard PH fans are known to have a strong degree of affection for. Although there are some moments on ACAT which could hypothetically have reached a more widespread level of commercial appeal, most of the album is ... something rather more special. Hammill's vocals, alternately scathingly intense and perfectly compassionate, reach a plateau on this release which the singer has seldom managed to attain on his other works (and that's saying quite a bit, note). The run of emotions here is quite intense, and manages to invoke both the personal and universal at the same time.

Is this the best album of Hammill's solo career? Well, not quite. Though Hammill's strength of delivery is fairly consistent throughout, not all of the material is quite up to par. That said, the "highs" of the album are extremely high -- the "moments" on the album wherein Hammill perfectly captures the mood that he was seeking out are quite frequent, even if the songs aren't quite able to sustain the intensity of expression all the way through.

This is clearly an impressive work, and one which all of Hammill's fans should be aware of.

(Incidentally ... as keyboard-based albums of the progressive genre go, And Close As This would seem to have set a standard of sorts for performance minimalism. As the liner notes indicate, "[t]he music on these recordings consists of one pass of the hands across a keyboard", which was then digitally manipulated to fit the context of the songs in question. Those individuals who have an aversion to "overplaying progressive keyboardists" might be intrigued by this album, though it must be admitted that they probably wouldn't know of its existence anyway.)

The first track on the album, "Too Many Of My Yesterdays", is a winner. The lyrics are remarkably articulate, reflecting on a previous relationship in a manner that easily transcends the prosaic nature of most such songs. Hammill's use of his vocal abilities is nothing short of incredible here; save for the middle section, this could probably have worked as an a cappella number (not that the piano needs to be removed, that is). The concluding concluding line -- "Too many of my yesterdays are lost in you" -- sums up the track perfectly; the lines are incredibly "charged" throughout the song. As per the nature of the lyric, moreover, the "choppiness" of the piano role (given its digital nature) is quite effective. This track is, moreover, one of only two on the album to feature the original "sound" of the piano which Hammill used to create the album (the other being "Beside The One You Love"). An excellent beginning.

Unfortunately, "Faith" doesn't quite continue this high level of quality. However much effort Hammill puts into the song, neither the music nor (much more importantly) the lyrics are up to the ideal standard. I can understand why a fairly "untroubled" expression of love occurs in this album, but the tedious lyrics do little to help PH's cause (I suppose one could find a double meaning in the line, "I put my faith in you", but, otherwise, there simply isn't much to note here). The cathedral-esque music suggests a wedding ceremony; unfortunately, it too seems a bit stultified by the nature of the track. This isn't a disaster, but it ultimately comes off as somewhat second-rate for the album.

Thankfully, "Empire Of Delight" succeeds in depicting a blissful romantic setting in a manner which the previous track could not -- rather than offering a prosaic statement of his commitment, Hammill provides another highly literary depiction of the connection between the two individuals (while maintaining a certain solipsistic element as well). Perhaps the singer's awareness that he is creating a scene of innocence, rather than naively existing in one, makes all the difference. From a musical standpoint, this track (perhaps due to the co-writing credit) features a greater distinction of piano and lyrical melodies than before, and also features an effective guitar sample. The vocal emotings of the chorus, in particular, work extremely well.

The highlight of the album is "Silver", a track somewhat atypical for the album. The introductory keyboard melody is entirely removed from the lush atmospherics of the previous track, using instead an extremely harsh tone and an equally threatening note sequence (the sinister church organ is a nice effect as well). The vocals, not surprisingly, are equally vicious, accusing an unknown figure of broken friendships, greed, avarice and a general life of uncaring decadence (a suggestion of the Faust legend occurs in the lyric as well). It's not overly surprising that Hammill concludes the song by describing (without pity) the placing of silver over the individual's eyes, but this doesn't detract from its overall effect. This is easily one of the best tracks that he's ever released. Despite the limitations of the album, moreover, he also provides a fairly "progressive" keyboard solo before the last verse.

The second half of the album begins with the slightly disappointing "Beside The One You Love" -- this track features a decent piano melody and a fairly impressive vocal/lyric development, but the thematic limitations of the song ultimately hinder its success. It's clearly better than "Faith" -- it isn't a failure at all, in fact -- but it doesn't really count as a high point of the album.

"Other Old Cliches" is an extremely good track, albeit one which seems to be missing something. On this number, Hammill describes the fragmentation of a relationship and a subsequent attempt at reconciliation, noting in the process the manner in which language is made ineffectual in the process. The character development is handled quite well, though the plot itself seems a tad too convenient for the nature of the song. Musically, it's once again quite intense.

"Confidence" has the potential to be the best track on the album, but is ultimately brought down slightly by a delivery that seems a bit exaggerated even for the artist in question. The piano lead is perhaps the most instantly memorable musical section of the album, and the lyrical description of a upwardly mobile soul constantly avoiding self-examination (due to latent doubt, and perhaps a past weakness as well) comes off extremely well. In the final section of the song, however, PH ultimately goes overboard with the message of the track ("we're not alone in lack of confidence"); it might have been wise to choose a different synth patch to add "colour" to this section, moreover. This is still an incredible track when viewed comprehensively, but the flaws ultimately hold it back somewhat.

Finally, the album concludes with "Sleep Now", Hammill's (apparently) personal and heartfelt dedication to his young daughter, wherein he attains a proper understanding of the meaning of love by envisioning her future life. It should go without saying that this is one of the more "gentle" numbers here. Though it's not terribly complex from a musical standpoint and generally isn't one of the best tracks on the release, one is nevertheless inclined to favour Hammill's intentions in this track -- from a lyrical standpoint, it's once again very impressive. A fitting way to conclude the work.

This album is strongly recommended to all Hammill/VdGG fans, in spite of its flaws. As against that, it should be noted that this is not necessarily the best choice for a newcomer to PH's works (it was my first Hammill/VdGG album, and I was unsure what to think of it for quite some time). Even here, though, a progressive fan with a decent knowledge of Hammill's career should be able to digest it fairly well.

The Christopher Currie

(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 7 March 1998)


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