November 3, 2023

These songs are cast in a new light… or is it the same light but through a different window?

Of all the musicians I’d be surprised to see reference Taylor Swift in their liner notes, Peter Hammill is at the absolute top of the list. Or he was, at least, until this morning when I sat down to leaf through the booklet of his latest release and found that he had done just that in the opening paragraph. It seems Hammill found himself in something of a pickle regarding the ownership of his mid-period albums In a Foreign Town and Out of Water, and thusly found a way through the murk by completely re-recording them. How much of a role Ms. Swift’s much-publicized move to reclaim her own music played in Hammill’s decision to do likewise is unclear, but let it not be said that an elder British tunesmith of legendary calibre cannot find inspiration in the goings-on of a pop megastar some forty-odd years his junior and an ocean away.

In reconstructing these albums from the ground up, Hammill is not Xeroxing his own material; the songs’ words and melodies are the same, but they are distinctly 2023 versions, updated and performed with verve by a man with twice the life experience he had at the time of their creation. And for the purists, well, the old versions are still there in those original vinyl grooves or digital ones and zeroes… though I can’t imagine reaching for them again now, barring a sudden and perverse desire for those in-your-face snare drum samples peppered throughout In a Foreign Town.

By the time of making that album, Hammill had morphed through many phases; from psych-pop cherub to prog-rock maestro to forlorn poet to punky anthem writer to thoughtful crooner, with much linkage in between. It’s no surprise that come the late 1980s he added ‘MIDI composer’ to that repertoire, forging a new musical path while staying laser-focused on topics which gnawed at his soul. As always, he had plenty to say with these albums, musically and lyrically, but he was making them in a transitional time for musicians of his ilk.

Hammill in Toronto 1990

Hammill acknowledges that In a Foreign Town was boxed in by the sonic limitations of 1988 technology (use of an Atari ST is mentioned at one point… now there’s a memory unlocked!). And there’s no doubt the DIY techniques of the day sound dated today. In fact, it’s difficult to think of a more ideal candidate in the PH catalogue for such a revamping; the songs within are largely strong, and some have remained stage pieces through the years as the technology has changed (and then changed again). You might wonder, however, if the 74-year-old Hammill can tackle material of this vintage and still sound as genuine and sincere as the younger artist who first spat and howled these verses into the mic. By now, we know he’s perfectly capable on a performance level, having left many a punter’s jaw dropped with his ability and range lo these many decades, but what about the relevance of the lyrical subject matter in this different world we all inhabit in 2023? Well, as it turns out, much of that remains frightfully topical indeed.

If the introspection of previous records unearths the pangs of failed romance, aging, or simply the lashings of his own private hell, Hammill finds little comfort in looking outwardly on Foreign Town, particularly bitter in his assessments of politics and corporate greed (no change there, then) and even mentioning belief in a flat earth in the brooding opening track Hemlock… he must be yanking out what remains of his hair that such nonsense would still exist all these years later.

Sci-Finance (in 1988, already a much sunnier track than the venomous prototype Hammill growled on Van Der Graaf’s Vital record a decade earlier) is a good example of the newfound vibrancy in this modernization. The synthetic sound of the original – I believe it was Hammill himself who later called it ‘plastic’ – is replaced with a more natural warmth in the 2023 version. Though the specific notes and beats remain largely intact, and are still played entirely by Hammill, it’s clear that his skills in self production have been honed considerably since the days of Reagan and Thatcher.

Under Cover Names has long been one of the main offenders to a portion of the fan base, a good song buried under a wall of brassy synths that sounded distinctly un-Hammill (is it his Big Time?). To be honest, I’m not sure he went far enough in revising this piece; it’s toned down from the original, but the clattering percussion sounds and synth stabs are still as prevalent as the vocal, which sonically tethers it to the neon decade. But then, it is a period piece and I don’t suppose a wildly changed version would be appropriate here. Likewise with the pulsing sequenced rhythms of Auto, which if altered too greatly would leave us with a different song altogether. The skeleton of that song – to cop a popular bootleg title – is its driving energy, so Hammill’s only real option was to temper the 80s gloss, and I think he succeeds. Gentler ballads like Time to Burn and The Play’s the Thing are played fairly straight and have more subtle differences, particularly in the characteristics of Hammill’s voice.

Out of Water was released at the dawn of a new decade, but retained residue of the 1980s technology which has a sterility to it that some find distasteful, and even unlistenable. I am not in that latter camp, but I understand those views. This batch of songs was a different animal; decidedly less political than its predecessor and boasting a cast of players, including familiar faces like David Jackson, Nic Potter, John Ellis, and Stuart Gordon. Hammill recreates their parts himself here, and naturally the overall personality is more removed from its original version than with the entirely solo Foreign Town, but few of the differences are radical. Hammill’s vocal prowess is remarkably unmarred by time, apparent in opening track Evidently Goldfish. There aren’t many singers of his age that can tackle old material in its original key and still sound so capable and robust. I’ve been prattling on about it for decades now and he still continues to impress.

Performing at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto 14 March 1990

A big plus of these re-recordings is that they cast some songs in a new light… or perhaps it’s the same light through a different window. On the Surface is one that I keep revisiting as I had never rated it much in the past. But its atmospheric nature seems more appealing to me in this new version, with echoes of White Dot (one of Hammill’s later production pieces) woven throughout. Something About Ysabel’s Dance is another that was never high on my list despite its relative popularity, but the character of this new version drew me in completely, and it’s hard to pinpoint precisely why. Incidentally, Stuart Gordon’s original violin part in this song is the only bit of either album to be retained, and Hammill also makes a point of expanding the arrangement to include the Latin-themed section he and Gordon used to perform live (as a nod to Charles Mingus’ inspirational Ysabel’s Table Dance).

Gorgeous and sorrowful album closer A Way Out is another that feels even more convincing delivered by the Hammill of today, with a certain wistfulness that can only come with the yellowing of many a calendar page. This has always been a beautiful and haunting piece, and that finale is one that goes straight for the heart… as anyone who has ever experienced such a thing will understand all too well.

In some ways these albums represent a kind of farewell to the 1980s; Hammill’s musical theatre take on The Fall of the House of Usher was just around the corner, and that would be followed by his series of 90s releases that ranged from calm and conventional to enigmatic and experimental. There’s much to be found in the revisiting of these two albums, and depending on how well one knows the music, A/B comparisons between old and new reveal even more tidbits. I don’t know if he has more of this kind of thing planned, but if these are the only two he ever recreates, he certainly chose well, even if the whole project was born of necessity. I can only – as ever – be thankful to him for his artistry all these many years, and with In a Foreign Town and Out of Water fresh in my memory again, I shall happily fling myself down the Hammill rabbit hole once more.

The artist in 2023, Piacenza, Italy

In a Foreign Town/Out of Water double CD on Esoteric Recordings is out on 24 November.