ALBUM REVIEW – Peter Hammill – In Translation – First thing to say is, well actually there’s lots of first things to say about this (or indeed any) new Peter Hammill album, but the first vital thing to say is that this might be his first ever collection of versions of other people’s songs but this is very much classic Peter Hammill. The second first thing to say is that the cover art is excellent, that stark white brutalist feel of a sophisticated 60’s Italian airport in the bright Southern Italian light, that just right blue Italian tracksuit top that at first may seem to be not very Peter Hammill, a perfect (post-Brexit) statement from this rotten to the core one-eyed inward-looking tired old country of ours, Peter Hammill has always the forward looking Englishman (and in does seem that Italy has always been good to Mr Hammill and indeed is band Van Der Graaf Generator), I’ve seen others moan about it but that cover art and that portrait is just right.
When Peter Hammill presents a new album, especially a solo album, you find yourself needing to hang on every word, to look straight away for the detail, how is he feeling? What has he to say? More self portraits? The different Peter Hammills? It is then rather strange to find yourself hanging on his chosen words when they’re the words of other people and wondering why? Why did he choose that one? What was his thinking? What was process, how many songs did he record or reject? Hey look, I make no secret of my admiration for the artist that is Peter Hammill, he does paint so so well with his voice, his words, his own songs and here with his choice of the words of others, with a slightly different palette. I haven’t really read those sleeve notes yet, we did post them a few weeks ago, The temptation to read them has been avoided so far. When I first started writing this review I was working on an art show called Self, I was painting a self portrait, I was collecting together the self portraits of others, you don’t really need to know any of this, but then any first encounter with a new Peter Hammill album is a very personal almost private thing, it does need to be in context, and you do have to work yourself up to it, you don’t just throw on a new album like this while your doing the washing up or thinking about your tea. These may be other people’s songs but this is very very much another Peter Hammill self portrait, his latest, a very considered self portrait and it is, as already stated, classic classic Peter Hammill (and you are thinking well don’t go to Argentina then. don’t tempt fate, don’t let it happen.
His voice is a little softer these days, he still has that edge though, it is still unique. I could be a smartarse and ask why he didn’t cover one of Rikki Nadir’s compositions? The album was recorded in lockdown between March and December 2020 – “When lockdown began early in 2020 I found myself, of course, in such an unbalanced and uncertain state that I didn’t really feel capable of writing or recording new material. Instead – to keep my hand in and myself occupied – I set about working on a number of cover versions. I had no specific plan at the outset and just went for a number of songs at which I felt I could have a decent crack. I became more serious about the venture the longer it went on. Eventually the pieces presented in this collection seemed to fit together as a group, not least because most of them are to do with measures of dislocation, of loss, of an imagined future which didn’t arrive. To do with the 2020 experience, in short”.
As much as these aren’t Hammill songs, they almost feel like they are, so much of it is familiar ground, boats that have sailed, knocks on doors not answered, there are some surprises though, there are smiles (but then there are always smiles with Hammill albums, not always obvious, maybe never obvious, but there are), they all somehow feel like Peter Hammill songs, they have his stamp, his personality (his personalities?)
“Only three of the songs here were originally in English and I’ve translated the rest. I’ve had a bit of experience of doing song translation over the years, from Italian, German, French. My approach has always been to make cultural rather than strictly linguistic translations, so that the spirit of the song rather than its precise narrative is rendered and I’ve continued to use that method here. (I went for translation of the songs because whatever the merits or failings of my vocal performances in these recordings may be, I definitely couldn’t have seen myself coming up with convincing work while simultaneously grappling with the delivery of authentic pronunciation). Many of these songs had fully developed orchestrations in their original versions and in order to get to my own arrangements I initially had to find out how these worked – unfamiliar territory though it was for me. Working with the dots has never been my forte. Thereafter I could choose what to retain, what to omit, paraphrase or warp. Having done so I ended up – albeit somewhat unconsciously – with something of a uniform instrumentation across the whole project”.
These are warm versions, there’s beauty on the way to the end of the tunnel, the journey towards the light, they seem far more than just cover versions, his version of Luigi Tenco’s Ciao Amore is rather special, I don’t really want to go through every song, every tango or piece of American songbook, every bit of Rodgers and Hammerstein or the fact that most of his parents’ record collection during childhood largely consisted of musicals, “so this song – This Nearly Was Mine – and its sense of a yearning which is always destined to be unfulfilled has seemingly been with me forever” .- and yes I have started reading those sleeve notes now I love those tangos, actually, Ive turned to this album almost every day for the six weeks or so we’ve had it here now, it might be something to do with the lockdown we’re still in but I seem to have been listening to In Translation far more than other (then new) Hammill albums
Dare I sayI Who Have Nothing is maybe the only really obvious choice here? Must admit I didn’t know the song’s Italian history as much as the Shirley Bassey version we probably all know. And the red wine and the gutter and is there any hope and no I don’t want to go through every song and spend time analysing rather than just enjoying, exploring, celebrating, and yes, maybe just worrying a little, he is one of the very few who are national treasures (although I suspect I wouldn’t be thanked for saying that). Other people’s songs they might be but this is classic Peter Hammill, what a way to mark 2020 and the endless lockdown we were in, the endless torment of life under our ever-failing self-serving government, life with red wine and no gigs or gatherings or art galleries or adventures beyond the local supermarket and the disaster upon disaster that Brexit has been so far and will it seems continue to be.
“Tough though it was that Covid was raging while I was making these recordings I was also filled with the dread of impending Brexit. Now the free travel around Europe which has been such a feature, pleasure and education in my adult life has ended and all the benefits of cultural exchange are gone with it. I wouldn’t have been able to approach or understand many of these songs without that experience and to lose it is piteous. So the making of this record is the act of a Briton who was, is and will remain a European, though one from whom rights have been stripped”.
Hey look, I’m a fan, have been for years, I’d pay to listen to him recite the phone book and you might have grounds to accuse me of not being that objective, but this is so right, so perfectly now, this is a brave album, an album that might not have happened if he had been out there touring with his band like he should have been, an album that might have never ever happened under “normal” circumstances. This is a strong album, a fragile album, a treasure chest of an album full of surprises and things you’d maybe think wouldn’t quite work, things that you maybe have to listen a few times to really get, songs that maybe don’t make sense until you have unwrapped the whole thing and then gone back to the start and The Folks Who Live On The Hill again and let it play through once more. Hey look classic Peter Hammill, does anyone do it better? Superb (sw)
More details over on Peter’s own Sofasound website “The album will be released on 7th May and we are now taking preorders for the CD at the Orders page. There will also be a vinyl release but that’s a little further away”.
Peter Hammill Organ coverage
Van Der Graaf Generator Organ coverage