words by maria sledmere
There’s always been a certain timeless quality to Dan Willson, aka Withered Hand’s songs; timeless in the sense of a lyrical wit that taps the comi-tragic scenarios of the present while mining questions more eternal: what about God, love, desire, hope, fear? It’s been a few years since Withered Hand put any music out, and while Willson might quip this as an extended career break, the time that’s passed since 2014’s New Gods has lent a complexity to his sound and lyrical direction. Calling it ‘mature’, however, misses out on the lightheartedness that continues to lift even his more serious songs. Turns out, Withered Hand has been spending his time recording and working on a Spanish farm in the middle of nowhere with folk troubadour, Lieven Scheerlinck of Barcelona-based quartet A Singer of Songs. Like Samson, he’s cut his beautiful hair, but thankfully the cleaner look hasn’t incurred a loss of power: Willson’s songs, drenched in the candid lo-fi tones of his soft, high voice, retain a strong flavour of that rueful humour and self-critical wit that garnered attention on his earlier records.
At a recent gig in Glasgow’s Hug and Pint, with solo support from the ever lovely Martha Ffion, Willson and Scheerlinck got together onstage to perform songs off their new EP, Among Horses I. With the seductive chemistry of a double act built on genuine friendship, they carefully explained the stories and contexts which gave rise to each track. At the risk of sounding a bit New-Age, time on the nowhere farm seems to have brought about a spiritual renewal for both artists. When not helping plant garlic and building irrigation systems, the pair got stuck into writing an elegant, six-track EP which is a testament to a particular moment, a shared experience, as much as a steadfast gift to fans who have long-awaited Withered Hand’s return.
There’s a certain energy to these songs, where the rhythms and lyrics reach into a closer experience with the natural world; its cycles of change, regeneration and upheaval providing lovely metaphors for the kind of existential pondering that has long characterised Willson’s songs. On opening track, “After the Rain”, Willson sings of not drinking anymore, “sick of picking my body up off the floor”, delicately elaborating the subject of long-term relationships and self-rebirth with reference to his gorgeous Spanish surroundings: “a river used to wind its way down the valley to the plain / you’ll be looking at a new man / after the rain”.
The Hug and Pint’s intimate basement venue is perfect for allowing the EP’s personality to shine alongside Willson and Scheerlinck’s between-song repartee. Together, the two singers hit a sweet spot between maudlin self-deprecation and the quick wit of an ironic lyric. On record, A Singer of Songs’ music bears the sparse melancholy of early Bright Eyes or Elliott Smith set to clean production, with rich sluices of string arrangements trickling a warm sensibility through irresistibly tender melodies. Like all good folk songs, this translates well onstage as a stripped-back acoustic performance. Before playing “Alone & Alright”, for example, Scheerlinck tells the song’s story as an encounter with two strangers dancing and kissing at a bar in Barcelona, sharing his joy in their moment until the girl turns around and he realises she is his girlfriend. There’s a sense of fragility to all happiness, the fear of being forgotten, of forgetting.
As Withered Hand works through his back catalogue, we recall the lines that saved him from the familiar moniker of miserable indie acoustic artist and forged what others have called a kind of anti-folk: defined by its brazen spirit and carefree confession; made to last with soaring melodies and irresistible hooks. The old favourites from Good News—“you stole my heart / and I stole your underwear”—played alongside the quietly Arcadian direction of Among Horses I work well, always garnering laughter from the audience even as their hearts are silently breaking. “Religious Songs” proves to be the destined highlight, as the audience softly sing along to the la la la parts and there’s a spell over the room unbroken for the song’s whole duration, where it’s obvious everyone here knows the words, relishes favourite lines like “how does he really expect to be happy / when he listens to death metal bands?”
Among Horses I is a grower, luring you back for more with its stories, its lush dialogue of electric and acoustic guitar, the subtle loveliness of its harmonies. “Wishes Gone” is a wish list sung by Scheerlinck, a self-aware song of longing in which a more visceral experience of life is desired: “I wish these pop songs were punk rock / and tender kisses ruthless love”. The soft rolling drums, playful twangs of guitar and accompanying la’s recall Yo La Tengo: that combination of cherishing deep possibilities at the same time as whimsically admitting the limits of singing about something to make it happen. You can’t help but think of blossom being tugged off the trees at the end of spring, a bittersweet experience of ephemerality reminding us that sad things must happen for the good stuff to bloom: as Scheerlinck sings on “Among Horses”, “turn old into new / sad into true”.
“Among Horses” shows Scheerlinck reaching a balmy, almost country drawl, accompanied by Willson’s refrains filtered through a fuzz of static. Appropriately, Sparklehorse are the most obvious comparison here, especially with the lyric “farewell old sad me”, recalling the minimalist alt-country of ‘Sad and Beautiful World’ from the band’s 1995 debut, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot. But where Sparklehorse rarely reach that defiant lilt of a major key, Withered Hand and A Singer of Songs draw themselves out of the (admittedly beautiful) sorrow: “despite the shackles we’re in / we will command.” You get the sense that it’s the music itself that commands, provides form for the raw material of experience to be shaped into something long-lasting, gorgeous and, frankly, alive. The vocal performance on these tracks is a far-cry from the cheeky lyrical twists of yore (“You’re not fucking John Updike / Even if you spell it right”); here, there’s a certain understated sincerity, a wispy fragility that draws strength on its chorus.
On “A Sign”, Willson begins with a memory, “carving our names into the trees / was it ninety-three or ninety-two?”. Nostalgia floods this album with its sepia warmth—“years coil in my palm / beads upon the rosary”—and Willson’s voice has obtained a slightly deeper husk than his higher, more youthfully raw trills, impressing the beneficial effects of well-weathered time on the road. The shortest track on the EP, “A Sign” is wistful and minimal, hitting us with the devastating beauty of lines that document an unconditional love for family, for travelling, for the sheer fact of experience itself. It’s this uplifting spirit that beams its golden, Spanish sunlight over the whole EP, even in its more plaintive moments.
“Santa Cova” evokes a sort of deconstructed blue-grass, roots rock atmosphere, the kind of song you’d listen to on the back of a truck, trundling across the desert while looking for that life-affirming solution to your existential crisis. As Willson explains to the audience, Santa Cova is actually a shrine, the Holy Cave of Montserrat, a sanctuary and pilgrimage destination. Pilgrimage is perhaps one of the best ways of describing this EP: a journey towards self-renewal, sorting out the everyday joys and spiritual truths from the morass of experience that comes with touring, having a family, growing up.
The country influence is more explicit here than on any previous Withered Hand material, and you get the sense that Willson’s horizons have expanded far beyond his friend’s “futon” upon which he notoriously sleeps in ‘Religious Songs’. Final track ‘Stray’ is structured around the refrain, “it’s okay / don’t be afraid to / lose your way”. Among Horses I is an incomplete title, an intake of breath that gestures at simply being, at the same time as inviting us to fill in the unfinished expression with our own sense of a continuing narrative journey. Horses are often symbols of freedom and wildness, and here they lead us wherever we want them to go.
You get the sense that Withered Hand has set himself up with this delicious position. At the gig, when he thanks Scheerlinck for reviving his career, it’s not just a typically tongue-in-cheek instance of self-deprecation, but a genuine expression of friendship that warms the room. Together, they’ve created something that feels very pure and free, not chained to a particular direction; released on a Barcelona label, an example of continental musical collaboration that we need more than ever in the age of Brexit. Withered Hand can still do humour—telling us that despite all the nice lyrics about nature he’s actually terrified of the countryside and cracking bawdy jokes about Scotland’s medieval sex industry—but alongside the laughs there’s that persistent sense of striving towards clarity and sincerity, while never falling into that trap of the cloyingly sentimental indie. These songs come ripe for summer, like sparkles of sunlight through hedgerows after rain. They won’t be forgotten for a very long time.
Among Horses I is out now, via Son Canciones
Order it here