Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Peter Hammill - Over

Peter Hammill
Over


Released 1977 on Charisma
Reviewed by Fitter Stoke, 21/06/2002ce


Ever lost that special someone in your life because you took him or her for granted, then basked so much in your own personal disaster that your friends avoid you like a radioactive scarecrow? Peter Hammill has. He wrote an entire album about it.

‘Over’ is the most confessional album I have in my collection. Its subject falls prey to all the worst excesses of emotion and self doubt that can beset the male psyche. He questions and ponders the darkest corners of his past and present life and the old age yet to come. He ruminates as his closest companions stab him in the back or are driven away by his selfishness. His partner has grown terminally sick of his bigotry and indifference, and after leaving him, commits the ultimate act of retaliation: she marries his best friend. And Hammill tells it all in graphic detail over eight remarkable songs.

‘Crying Wolf’, which opens the record, is a full-frontal verbal attack on its subject. Accompanied by a venomous, almost heavy metal guitar, Hammill spits out exactly what he thinks of the egocentric target of his bile. The attack is brutal, yet justified: its recipient is guilty of putting every relationship in his life at risk through self-pity and spite. But there is a twist in the tale. This is the only song on the album delivered in the second, rather than the first, person. Hammill is in fact turning the tables on himself.

‘Autumn’ sees our antihero predicting life from the perspective of physical maturity. With his soon-to-depart partner by his side, he solemnly ponders “I wonder how long/It will be till this song/Is sung by our own sons and daughters”. The sparse string accompaniment and piano accentuates the pessimism that will soon be proved justified.

By ‘Time Heals’, the bird is fleeing the nest, and Hammill is “only writing love songs when it’s gone and dead”. And the mistake hits home hard. When he wails “…hand in hand go you and my friend/You are his and I am yours…” your sympathies are turning in his favour. Perhaps the most accessible song on the album (with a pure pop middle section that is a complete red herring), ‘Time Heals’ still exudes an almost overwhelming sense of sadness and regret. By ‘Alice (Letting Go)’, the damage has been done. Sung in deadly quiet against drearily-strummed acoustic guitar, the mood has shifted beyond self-pity to self-realisation and shame, albeit with a constant sense of disbelief that makes the loss all the more unbearable.

‘This Side Of The Looking Glass’ is the saddest song I have ever heard. Beginning acapella almost in the manner of plainchant, the most engaging and enchanting orchestral arrangement ever to grace a “popular” record gradually metamorphosises behind Hammill’s morose lamentation. This is nothing less than the world of late Brahms, a minor-keyed symphonic adagio backing (and occasionally overtaking) the almost palpable sense of tragedy in the singer’s voice. Try in vain to hold back a tear when he cries “…like a stray dog in the night/I’ll shuffle off alone”. A masterpiece of mood and harmonic impressionism.

‘Betrayed’ sees the sour grapes arrive, and then some. Starting off similarly to ‘Alice’ with strummed guitar, the atmosphere quickly turns bitter, then angry, then suicidal. That patent Hammill Van der Graaf scream, unusually restrained until now, shocks all the more at the “I don’t believe in anything/Anywhere in the world” climax.

Hammill calms down a little for ‘(On Tuesdays She Used To Do) Yoga’ (inspired bracketing there, Peter!) as he rues his indifferent behaviour to his now-lost lover. He is now resigned to his fate, and carrying out a mental post mortem of his erstwhile relationship.

The final song on ‘Over’ is the most enigmatic. I’ve never been entirely sure where ‘Lost And Found’ is coming from, but it ends the record perfectly. The track commences with the wedding of his ex and his friend looming, and the in-your-face bass of Nic Potter seems to paint in sound the hopelessness of Hammill’s plight. But is there relief in store? The remarkable central section of the song takes us back to the situation at the end of ‘La Rossa’ on Van der Graaf Generator’s ‘Still Life’ album. There, Hammill has ruminated on the wisdom, or otherwise, of a passionate fling with a woman with whom he has enjoyed a long-term platonic friendship, but whose “ocean body” he now desires beyond all reason. Now we see the aftermath, the morning after the deed, where “though he knows she has no further use for him/Still he feels like he’s raised from the dead”. Rebound sex, that classic refuge of the rejected, feels good for our man: indeed, he intones that he is “in love at last”. But it all feels so damn desperate and transitory, and when he says “Everything’s gonna be all right” at the record’s close, it comes with a mountain-sized question mark in his suddenly unaccompanied voice.

Peter Hammill sorts the men from the boys. Like Dylan, or even more so, you either love or hate his unique voice which veers on the operatic in its tone and dynamism. His unique compositions surpass those of more artistically and commercially renowned names in their structure and innovation. Only the obsessive fan could begin to dig everything he’s put out under the name of his former band and himself. But in a vast back catalogue, ‘Over’ stands out, and I’d recommend it to anyone with a soul and an emotional history. Listen to ‘Over’ and you know you are not alone.


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