As tour dates fade further away into a still uncertain future, Peter Hammill, like other artists whose live work has been put on hold, has busied himself in the studio. Recorded between March and December 2020, In Translation is unusual for a PH record in that its material is written by other composers.
Hammill took up these cover versions partly as a means of maintaining some artistic equilibrium in the face of the pandemic overwhelming the outside world. However, this isn’t simply the Van der Graaf Generator linchpin knocking out a few old faves like a latter-day Bryan Ferry. A fair portion of the material looks to the darker corners of Italian pop as well as other off-piste paths including Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla, Faure, and even some lieder from Mahler. These Foolish Things this ain’t.
Even when tackling the Great American Songbook, Hammill eschews the neon for the noir. Though gently evoking Nelson Riddle’s wistful arrangement for Peggy Lee’s The Folks Who Live On The Hill, he injects something darker that curls the smooth edges of the lyric’s picture-perfect idyll. Just how dark he goes is immediately indicated by the spikier contours of Fabrizio de Andre’s Hotel Supramonte, containing the memorable line, ‘If you stay at Hotel Supramonte take a look at the sky, there’s a woman going up in flames and a man stands aside.’ On Piazzolla’s Oblivion and Ballad For My Death, jittery synths, glowering keyboards, brittle strings, and shards of hallucinatory guitar shimmer, articulating the melancholic ache seeping out of slow tango melodies that stalk off in unexpected directions.
Faure’s After A Dream stirs with driving piano and turbulent energy, while a lattice of topsy-turvy guitar and plaintive strings etch opaque shapes against his fervent vocals on Mahler’s Lost To The World. The very unfamiliarity of these choices effectively makes the experience not unlike listening to new or previously undiscovered selections from Hammill’s famously prolific output. Covers they may be but the sonic ground he maps out means this record couldn’t possibly belong to anyone else.
Ultimately, what could have been a disparate collection is held together by the unifying passion and intensity of a vivid artistic voice. Frank Sinatra, who built a career on interpreting and making anew the writing of others, once observed, “When I sing, I believe. I’m honest.” When Hammill gets close to the mic and sings, that kind of honesty and integrity comes through loud and clear, making the rest of us true believers too.