When Barry Manilow croons the line ‘I write the songs that make the whole world sing’ ,we doubt very much whether he has a picture of Peter Hammill in the back of his mind. The Van der Graaf Generator mainman is not what one would call a populist figure in the world of music. His songs are bleak, morbid and mesmerising – much to the delight of hardcore fans who like nothing better than having their tender souls jolted to the core. But the whole world? Not so much.
From The Trees is the latest in a very long line of determinedly individualistic, some might say self-absorbed, Hammill solo albums. Will it win the highbrow progster new admirers? Not a jot. Will it sell more than a generous handful of copies? Unlikely. But that doesn’t stop it being achingly, challengingly brilliant. The overriding theme is, as ever, an intensely personal one. Since suffering a heart attack in 2003 Hammill has been haunted by visions of his own mortality. Now nearing his 70th birthday – and if you’ll forgive the image of a rancid tramp waving a placard down Oxford Street – he realises the end is nigh. Thus From The Trees, to quote the man himself, is full of songs that explore – or, more accurately, dissect – the experience of “facing up to or edging in towards twilight”. Taking a leaf out of Love’s Arthur Lee’s little red book, then: all that lives is gonna die. Of course this could be dismissed as a cute marketing ploy as a recent survey concluded that 86.4 per cent of VdGG fans were OAPs. (We’re joking of course, although Hammill plainly isn’t.)
In common with much of PH’s modern-day output the album has a sparse, cottage-industry appeal. Occasional bursts of fierce, psychotic guitar evoke the spirit of punk-rock alter ego, Rikki Nadir. Otherwise it’s voice and piano and very little else. The intimacy is at times so intense it’s almost frightening. It is, to borrow the title of a VdGG song, ’eavy mate. There are some clever subplots too, Hammill being at the very top of his lyrical game. Reputation issues this chilling message to the Kardashian generation: ‘You might as well admit that in the final reckoning fame and fortune are falsehoods that leave you for dead.’ But as someone whose late father suffered from Parkinson’s disease a song called Anagnorisis (and it is a genuine word; look it up) hits home hard and true with the words: ‘The shaking in his hand is a sign of goodbye not hello.’ What more is there to say except: Peter Hammill – death becomes him.