Neil Halstead has spent the last two and-a-bit decades on the outskirts of popular music. He circled the mainstream with the beautiful Slowdive alongside Rachel Goswell only to be left beaten and bleeding at the side of the road by the music press shoegaze backlash of the mid-‘90s. Unbowed he continued with the Americana tinged Mojave 3 alongside former Chapterhouse mainstay Simon Rowe where a certain level of respect and popularity was achieved especially through the belated patronage of the likes of Band Of Horses.
He’s alone here, for all intents and purposes and, despite the presence of a well-chosen backing band, it’s Halstead alone taking the melodic grace of Slowdive and marrying it to the tender folkisms of his time in Mojave. Simultaneously he’s making it something all it’s own while also openhandedly gesturing to a number of luminous influences. A neat balancing trick if you can get it right.
Happily, Halstead gets it absolutely right for almost the whole record.
Opener ‘Digging Shelters’ may be the best song Halstead has written in a good many years – a melody crisp as fallen leaves, a plaintive lyric weighted with stoicism, regret and sad humour(“We build a house of dreams and dominoes / Now it’s falling down / Got my headphones on -I won’t hear a sound”), and a guitar part that proves endlessly listenable will have you returning to the front of the album over and over again in search of the autumnal delights it holds.
‘Wittgenstein’s Arm’ makes best use of minimal backing vocals and ‘I’m On Fire’-phrasing to frame a tale of tragedy and loss spiced with the epically sad line “Write a song for the left hand only”. ‘Spin The Bottle’ borrows carefully and knowingly from both Neil Young and Billy Bragg to create one of the strongest musical moments here.
The piano-led charm of the title track sees Halstead reminisce, again in a memorably tuneful way, of an encounter with a lost love. His voice, unquestionably the thing that makes the album great, is soft, rich and at it’s most naturally accented here.
‘Full moon Rising’ looks back over it’s shoulder at the earlier ‘Digging Shelters’ and reintroduces a version of it’s guitar line as the foundation for a violin-soaked old school folk number. Don’t expect any jaunty all-round-the-piano Mumford-bollocks here though – this is refined, heartfelt and real folk music like Nick Drake and the like used to make, the kind of folk music you can get enraptured by and totally lost in.
The likes of ‘Loose Change’ (“Don’t worry if you don’t hear nothing for a while/It’s just my way” he offers) and the intricate ‘Love Is A Beast’ prove that modern British folk need not neither be tuneless adherence to trad relic fetishism nor populist, illegitimate faux-poetry. Halstead shows over and over again that he has the skill and intuition to operate within the genre without being pulled toward the cold concrete of banality and failure by sticking too closely to it’s previously established rules.
It’s something he did in Slowdive (if ‘Alison’ isn’t a pop song then please let us know exactly what is) and it’s something he’s doing now to supreme effect.
If fault is to be found here it’s in the lack of breadth afforded to Halstead’s musical canvas – it’s a fairly insular record that feels constantly personal without ever branching out into more general, open terms. Of course, this is also easy to see as a virtue – consistency of tone is a rare thing to find across a whole album.
‘Palindrome Hunches’ is a record that can fill your autumn and winter with glowing warmth, rustic pleasures and rounded, delicious tunes. It’s undoubtedly one of the finest British records released this year, happily by someone who is soundly at the top of their game despite years trudging through the mire of the UK music industry. Perhaps this is Halstead’s moment to find himself firmly and deservedly at the centre of things? Even if not – what a tremendous culmination of the man’s considerable talents.