Midway through his set at Manchester’s Gorilla on the first Friday of February, Hamish Hawk stopped to tell the crowd with childlike awe: “this is our biggest ever gig.” This simple expression cast a lovely feeling of warmth down from the stage and across the room. It was clear that this guy, beaming from ear to ear, had one dream: to make a living writing songs and performing them. And his face showed nothing but delight that so many people enjoy his creations. In this cruel and unforgiving world, moments of genuine joy like these are rare – and a pleasure to behold.
This show marked the release day for Hawk’s latest album, Angel Numbers. It’s a record that I, and many others in the Gorilla audience who’d discovered him at Salford’s Sounds From The Other City festival last year, would be keen to see succeed. His act was such an unexpected treat – all witty lyricism, unhinged smiles, and catchy choruses. I’ve described him to many uninitiated as “like Morrissey (without the xenophobia)” in how he strides atop his band’s rhythm section with crisp one-liners and turns of phrase. So the first thing to say about the new record is that it doesn’t stray from that formula. A glance down the tracklist reveals song titles steeped in quirk (‘Elvis Look-alike Shadows’, ‘Dog-eared August’) and when the play button is pressed, the sound is familiar.
Hawk is a man who thoroughly enjoys playing around with the English language and melding phrases around song structures. The dizzying lines of ‘Think Of Us Kissing’ include: “now everyone’s weighing in on the lady in waiting / ’bout how long it’s all taking, as she sits for the painting / as soon as it dries it starts depreciating.” When the lines connect with the music, it’s highly satisfying. ‘Elvis Look-alike Shadows’ opens with “back in the wretched day, I was ill-shapen clay, and suffering didn’t fit me” and continues from there. I have next to no idea what the hell he’s going on about, but such phrases delivered in his Edinburgh diction land incredibly pleasantly on the ear.
In fact the whole thing is an easy listen. With all the frontman’s lyrical eccentricities, it’s easy to detract from the subtle effectiveness of the band’s musicianship. On ‘Bridget St. John’ they set a serene mood, swells of meditative guitar and strings rising and falling as Hawk tells his tale. ‘Frontman’, starring PBs favourite Anna B Savage, uses an organ to establish a minimal, spiritual atmosphere, intriguingly exploring new sonic ground for this group.
But in terms of ‘exploring’, that’s about as far as we get on Angel Numbers. The lack of musical development from Hawk’s previous work is both a reassuring constant – I didn’t come here for his glitchy experimental album – but also something that prevents it from being anything beyond merely enjoyable. No new ground is being broken here. And for all the enjoyable wordplay, there isn’t much to properly grasp onto in terms of a message on this album. ‘Money’ comes closest with its comments about the ethical aspects of making money, but most of the lyrics are so cryptic it’s hard to understand what point is being made.
Still, neither the lack of message nor experimentalism truly dent the enjoyment of Angel Numbers. Returning to ‘Money’; by the time the chorus hits, the point of the song is furthest from the mind as one is too busy singing along to the chorus. The Samantha Crain-featuring ‘Rest and Veneers’ is part of a strong closing section, with the two vocalists enjoying a sweetly sung duet, and more quotable couplets arriving from the start (“crisis after crisis we’re undressing in tears / therapists and dentists suggest rest and veneers”). And the steady build of ‘Grey Seals’ provides a fine finale to the record, an unresolved tension lurking beneath the veiled meaning.
Thankfully, there are enough good songs on Angel Numbers to continue the upward trajectory of Hamish Hawk. It’s a solid collection with plenty of clever lines and nifty musicality to bask in, even if there’s nothing here which truly surprises or makes a great statement. Hopefully further large audiences await him and his band. The world’s Friday night crowds need more of that joy to bask in.
Words by Tom Burrows