The first sound on Ben Watt’s new album, Hendra, is about what you’d expect it to be: a lone, elegiac synthesizer chord fading into being, both chilly and pregnant with implications. It feels like the beginning to an offering of cloudy, serpentine dance music, the kind that Watt has become synonymous with since his group Everything But the Girl shed its jazz-pop chanteuse skin on its way to the club in the early 1990s.
But that chord is a red herring. While Hendra boasts some of the darkly elegant melodies and lyrical ennui that dignified the work of Watt’s previous band, it sounds more like an adult contemporary/folk crossover album that could have been released in 1976. Watt clearly has an affinity for the long, rolling soundscapes of tunes like Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat,” where hooks aren’t as important as stories and the circular swirl of instruments that set the tone for those stories.
As a result, Hendra is awash in clean electric guitars and comforting Fender Rhodes, with steady, fill-free drumming that keeps the proceedings from getting too somber. When it works, it’s easy listening in the best sense. “Forget” is a lovely shade of Stewart, its airy production cut just so by a minor chord progression, its chorus scratching the surface of romantic regret without getting too fussy about it: “Who am I fooling when I say I wish we’d not met?” “Young Man’s Game” is a frothy, self-pitying ballad aimed firmly at dads; its narrator has a Jager bomb-fueled night out and regrets it, despite the pillow of sweet harmonies that prop him up throughout. And “Nathaniel” is stuffed with tasteful blues guitar licks, which makes it a positively raucous good time in context.
That Watt and his collaborators, ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler and producer Ewan Pearson, could capture this kind of sound so accurately is a testament to their affection for the period, and a hint at the trajectory Watt’s career might have taken had he not met Tracey Thorn. Hendra is technically the follow-up to Watt’s 1983 solo debut, North Marine Drive, a stripped-down, bossa nova-infused folk album that includes the phrase “fluffy clouds” within the first 20 seconds. Unfortunately, those lyrical tendencies are still evident three decades later.
Hendra is such an impressively executed time capsule that it contains not only all of the pleasantries of the genre, but also its excessive earnestness. Almost every song has at least one well-intentioned groaner, from the title track’s awkwardly phrased adage “You know what they say about silver and lining” to the majority of the tired nature metaphors that make up the wannabe Carpenters B-side “Spring.” The biggest offender is “The Gun,” the longest track on the album. It’s a story about a gun-related death in an orange tree-laden gated community, and Watt fails to give it the appropriate gravitas, balancing political generalities with oddly specific descriptions. “Private patrol cars, but that’s a joke/It’s just two guys napping and sipping on Diet Coke,” he sings without irony.
Even more damaging is the dissonance between the tragedy the song brings to mind, the death of Trayvon Martin, and the actual story it tells, about a child who’s accidentally killed by a stray bullet from the community shooting club. Whether this was Watt’s intention or not is beside the point; it feels strange and toothless, an unfortunate blemish on an album that embraces patently unhip music in a wide-eyed, charming, and often rewarding way.