Peter Hammill

The Thin Man Sings Ballads

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The Thin Man Sings Ballads compiles tracks drawn largely from Peter Hammill's '90s albums. Like The Love Songs (1984), it assembles a selection of his quieter, more contemplative numbers -- an appealing concept, since some of his most powerful work has also been his most introspective. However, while this collection presents one facet of Hammill's songwriting and doesn't pretend to cover the full range of his artistry, much of this material actually underscores his weaknesses. Although Hammill places considerable emphasis on his lyrics, he occasionally seems to be going through the motions musically, as if the accompaniment were only a backdrop to the words. There's plenty of evidence of that tendency here: insipid songs like "Tenderness" suggest an artist on musical autopilot, although Hammill shows slightly more ambition on the vaguely schmaltzy chamber pop numbers "Phosphorescence" and "Astart." Elsewhere, "I Will Find You" ventures into surprisingly mainstream pop territory, with antiseptically clean production guaranteeing an instantly dated feel. Indeed, many of these tracks have the paradigmatic sound of a once-innovative musician who stopped listening to contemporary music some time ago and who continues working in a void, producing material you might hear playing at the dentist's office. The other problem with a collection of musically weak songs is that they accentuate Hammill's rare lyrical lapses -- especially his tendency to articulate obvious ideas as if they were profound, original observations and to deliver them as if they were poetry, without the requisite linguistic inventiveness. Some of these songs benefit from a greater sense of dynamism and movement ("Your Tall Ship") and a stronger melodic sensibility ("A Better Time"), but they do little to salvage this collection. Hammill's uniqueness derives from his embrace of extremes: that essential characteristic of his work is lost on a compilation featuring only one side of his creative personality.

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