Paddy Hanna is not someone to sit still. Nor is he someone who likes to be predictable. The Dublin-based songwriter’s sophomore album, Frankly, I Mutate, was not only a masterclass in retro-flecked, baroque pop, but, with the beauty of retrospect, was a clear blueprint of his personal mantra. For his third album, released on Strange Brew (Autre Monde, Squarehead, Slow Place Like Home), Paddy notches up the experimentation, whisking away Girl Band’s Adam Faulkner and Daniel Fox, as well as Daniel Fitzpatrick (Badhands, The Mighty Stef) to west Cork. “We lost ourselves on the Hill, Daniel, Daniel, Adam and I. A seemingly endless spell of isolation spent banging sheet metal, rusted hubcaps and blistering our fingers through non-stop recording,” he explains.
The outcome of their escapade is a finely poised album, structured to flit between ethereal, pacifying instrumentals and brooding, punk-fuelled folk. Tracks like ‘My Ladybird’ and ‘A Strange Request’ effectively serve as palette cleansers following the rambunctious hard-hitters of ‘Nameless’ and ‘Cannibals’, the latter of which fizzes with haunting and guttural musings. Such a tracklist ultimately leaves artists with a tricky decision to make; to either frontload the energetic tracks and embrace an album split with starkly different styles, or, in the case of The Hill, pepper frenzies among genteel soundscapes and end up with an album that never quite comfortably flows. By the time lead single ‘Sinatra’ explodes six tracks in, throwing together Daniel Fitzpatrick’s scuzzy guitar with the dystopia of an Italian chord organ gifted to Hanna, the scales are tipped towards bold-but-unsuccessful experimentalism.
Painful sequencing aside, The Hill provides an exceptional vantage point over Hanna’s incredible craft. Hanna and co. took full advantage of west Cork’s endless wilderness, bottling the beating wind with ambient microphones. Coupled with the repurposing of sheet metal and car parts from abandoned train stations and boatyards as percussive instruments, The Hill boasts a cinematic and captivating sonic palette. Yet despite the innovation on show, its strongest moments arrive at the aforementioned ethereal tracks, from the exquisite finger-picking of ‘My Ladybird’ to the choral creak of opener ‘Last of their Kind’, both of which exude warm melancholy.
Hanna’s lyricism is as astute as ever, with The Hill dealing with the challenges of mental health, the search for happiness, and the moral conflict of adolescence in Catholic Ireland. Each track is written as an internal monologue, drawing the listener right into Hanna’s headspace. “Clatter and bang of a godless hand that dressed in the cloth of religious men/finding faith in a cannibal hand/You’ll never get to heaven with a head turned backwards” Hanna muses among ‘Cannibals’ motorik production. “I wasn’t expecting to make a journal entry today, but I thought, why on Earth not?” he asks at the beginning of the spoken-word track ‘Jog On Shall We’, which transports the listener directly into his head as he muses in a small seaside town. As banality and wit unfurl over the course of five and a half minutes, The Hill crowns it’s unlikely highlight.
Much like its namesake, The Hill has both upsides and downsides. For all of the rich rewards delivered by Hanna’s undeniable penchant for songwriting, it’s lack of balance and lopsided structure result in a shaky descent, full of potholes and trip hazards. However, The Hill’s evocative ambiance, grandeur and sublime sense of location leave plenty to draw ardent fans and wandering ramblers back time and time again. Dom Edge