As somebody who is pretty obsessed with music, I have a fairly constant internal jukebox which picks out little bits of melody here or whole songs there with which to occupy the flexible territory between conscious distractions and the sub-conscious. Yes, this includes standard earworms, of course, but I’ll sometimes transpose songs across genres and imagine unusual cover versions. I’ll blend similar hooks and blatant rip-offs, Jive Bunny style, into one big tune. It’s often noisy, mostly welcome and frequently becomes the menu for what I’ll listen to next. It is all the fun of music with none of the constraints. And that’s what ‘Free Humans’ sounds like to me.
The second album from the now established four piece configuration of the band, ‘Free Humans’ is infectious, erratic and genuinely unique. Hen Ogledd combines the musical and vocal efforts of Dawn Bothwell, Rhodri Davies, Sally Pilkington and Richard Dawson, whose fabulous album ‘2020’ made it into last year’s list. It will, even with one listen, remind you of dozens of songs, bands and genres but only in a fleeting fashion for each. Recorded over only three days, it contains an almost insultingly high number of ideas and is instantly loveable. The synth pop singalong of ‘Trouble’, for which Bothwell takes the lead, has a charmingly route one call and response approach to hollering its title. Once you learn that it is also the name of Dawson and Pilkington’s cat, the lyrics “Trouble is the name of my shadow” and “draped around my shoulders, finery” take on a clearer meaning and the delivery of the song’s name is situated in context.
‘Crimson Star’ deploys Dawson’s really rather affecting falsetto for its chorus and, just as it did on his previous solo album, it wins me over unreservedly. The combination of accent, the limit of his range and the joyous build to that melody is one of the pure pop pleasures of this dour year. Telling the tale of a nostalgic intergalactic cruise ship singer, it conjures glorious imagery in lines like “over tarry seas, through meadows of verdant ruby goes flapping the shape of a memory,” that lingers long in that mental jukebox of mine.
While some songs are far more conventionally poppy than others, the less conventional and textured tracks worm their way further into your affections over time. Davies takes centre stage on ‘Remains’, where the hook is “Good evening, radio audience” and synth washes do battle with noodly guitar parts and chiming percussion. It doesn’t sound like much – or at least not like anything endearing – written down, but the repetitive final section has a transcendent quality to it. One of the great talents of this particular working group is their ability to ensnare the listener and then elevate the music slowly but surely to a point of genuine delight.
Each of these songs deserves a mini-essay of their own, such is the diverse nature of ‘Free Humans’. ‘Time Party’ briefly goes Scissor Sisters at one point – and is bloody great for it – and then, just as you’re enjoying that, it’s the fucking Pet Shop Boys. Honestly, I implore you to listen to this album and see what it does for you. It won’t please all comers, but be sure to give it your full attention before making any judgements.
Oh, and don’t miss ‘Flickering Lights‘. It commences with an instrumental passage played on a church organ that features the celebratory, gradual ascension present in much of their work, but which is much more pronounced when performed with such a particular signature. The lyrics that are then delicately intoned by Dawson are stunningly beautiful. I know I’m quite fond of a touch of hyperbole but this story of a bereaved partner continuing conversations and imagining a familiar presence has moved me to tears on more than one occasion. It is pure, it is poetry, it is perfect.