Withered Hand - How To Love (Reveal Records) 2

Withered Hand – How To Love (Reveal Records)

Withered Hand is the work of singer-songwriter Dan Willson. Hailing from London but long based in Edinburgh, this is his third album, following on from his debut album, 2009’s Good News and its follow-up, 2014’s New Gods. Two excellent records, both very unique and different from each other, and indeed this third long player. 

It’s been a long time coming, then, but this album is more than just another welcome addition to his catalogue. I first saw him on a bill at Edinburgh’s Cabaret Voltaire in the late 00s, on a bill headlined by another of the city’s fine acts, Broken Records. The line-up of Withered Hand that night included Neil Pennycook, of the excellent Meursault, also due to release another album this year, (spoiler: I’ve heard it and it’s great) and I played Good News incessantly throughout that freezing winter and beyond.

This new album was produced, recorded and mixed by Tony Doogan (who has also worked with the likes of Mogwai, Belle and Sebastian and The Delgados) in Glasgow, this album also features vocals from King Creosote and Kathryn Williams, as well as guitar from Malcolm Benzie of eagleowl.

Feelings – Speaking about the album’s opening track, Willson has explained ‘This cry-for-help of a song sums up years of trying to medicate uncomfortable feelings with whatever I could get my hands on. If the album opens with this car crash, then the rest of the songs on ‘How To Love’ are imbued with my attempts to keep stumbling away from living like that.’ On paper – or screen, if you will – the thought of brass on a Withered Hand album might sound out of place, but this will be brushed aside once you’ve heard this song.

Crippled Love – This references the ’90s and indeed he makes reference to singing ‘Come As You Are.’ A relatively mellow track musically, if not lyrically as he ponders sleepwalking through the days.

Waking Up – this track sees the return of the brass and some organ, the mood is evocative of Van Morrison circa Moondance or Saint Dominic’s Preview (yes, that good), there’s a real feeling of Celtic soul within as he seeks a personal salvation.

How To Love – perhaps the most heartbreaking and darkest song on the album, a reflection on temptation and suffering, a man afraid of dying not knowing how to love.

Serenity Prayer – There’s always been spiritual reflections within Willson’s songwriting, possibly due to his well-documented upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness. This might just be the best track on the record, it’s like a hymn, or a prayer set to music. Even to those not religious, it’s deeply affecting.

Misery & Company – despite the title, the music for this song is surprisingly uplifting, and I love the image of a cannonball afraid to fly. There’s a great guitar solo from Malcolm Benzie here as well. It’s easy to imagine the chorus being sung aloud by crowds at his gigs.

Give Myself Away – Much like ‘Misery & Company‘ there’s a theme of lamenting a friend’s death to suicide here, and pondering your place and role in the world.

Still Quiet Voice -‘why pray at night, unless there’s something to believe in?’ Willson ponders. It seems that he is prepared to open his heart to something…

Comedown – ‘Oh, bring it to the light, now let it go,’ he sings on the album’s closer. This emotionally feels like the end of a service of thanksgiving for someone’s life, and that of release in a positive way. I’m not crying, you’re crying.

It’s deeply personal record, and yet while it deals with dark themes, the mood you are left with is ultimately of hope and possibility. For my mind, Willson’s voice has never sounded as strong, nor has his songwriting been so finely crafted (and I write as a long-time admirer). There may be those who miss the (comparatively) more lo-fi approach of his debut, but this is where he’s at now, and a very fine record it is, too. He sounds and writes like a person becoming more at ease with themselves and the world they find themselves in. Hopefully the record that will take his commercial standing to the next level, it certainly deserves to.

Sure, it’s been a long wait, but for album number four, take as much time as you want. On this evidence, it will be worth the wait.

Withered Hand - How To Love (Reveal Records) 2

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