Darren Hayman / Secondary Modern

Pram Town

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Pram Town feels, in many ways, like the logical culmination of all that has come before in Darren Hayman's career. He considers it to be his tenth album, which means he's counting the four he made with Hefner, one each with the synth pop duo the French and the bluegrass outfit Hayman, Watkins, Trout and Lee, and the compiled Great British Holiday EPs, in addition to the two "proper" full-lengths under his own name. That's only fitting, since this album has stylistic echoes of all of those projects, and features musicians from most of them. Lyrically, it's also very much an extension of his past work, which has frequently focused on specific British locales (most notably London, as for instance on Hefner's We Love the City, but also the seaside vacation towns depicted on the Holiday EPs), and typically involves sentimental character vignettes and keenly observed meditations on love and nostalgia, youth and maturity, ambition and ambivalence, and disillusionment in the everyday lives of ordinary people. Those themes are at the heart of this modest concept album, a song cycle set in the "New Town" of Harlow, Essex, which was established in 1947 and affectionately nicknamed "Pram Town" due to the influx of young postwar families. Neither an outright condemnation of this type of now-obsolescent planned community nor a rose-tinted eulogy for a bygone heyday, the album presents a nuanced, bittersweet view of the town (located not far from Hayman's native Brentwood) through the eyes of a narrator who is at times sarcastic, and even scornful (as on "High Rise Towers in Medium-Sized Town"), but at other times genuinely proud (the title track; "Our Favorite Motorway").

The central narrative played out against this backdrop of suburban contradictions is, naturally enough, a love story: boy meets girl (in the utterly delightful, ukulele-led "Compilation Cassette," destined to be a meta-mixtape favorite) and dreams of romantic bliss (the jaunty, bluegrass-based "Losing My Glue"), but grows resentful of the class differences straining their relationship ("Out of My League"), leading to his inevitable heartbreak (the sweetly resigned "Leaves on the Line") and departure. It's a familiar story rich enough to let Hayman explore a decent range of timeless romantic themes, but not so complex that following it ever becomes a chore: crucially, any of these songs could stand perfectly well on its own. Indeed, Pram Town feels, if anything, less specifically character-driven than the majority of Hayman's work. Apart from the lovers, who remain nameless and archetypal, the only other significant characters listeners meet are (typically enough) a couple of musicians: going-nowhere local heros Amy and Rachel, who "mix R&B and death metal," though needless to say their ode here doesn't sound anything like that. Clearly, the character that Hayman is most interested in is Harlow itself; his treatment of the town, and its inhabitants' generalized love/hate relationship toward their home, is genuine, well thought-out, and entirely compelling. And while the album may not strike much new ground musically, the songs are uniformly strong and intriguingly diverse, featuring lush and varied folk-pop arrangements with an abundance of brass, banjo, and burbling vintage electronics. This is easily Hayman's most consistent and cohesive solo effort to date, and one of the most successful and satisfying records of his entire career.