12 songs – 33 minutes
Broken Man is Ben Hemming’s debut album and it’s a refreshingly different release that hints at great things to come from the London-based singer-songwriter.
Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar playing, with what sounds like foot drums (presumably also played by Hemming), the odd handclap and very minimal effects (such as on “Found My Way”), the album has one foot firmly in the folk camp, whilst looking both back to the early blues of Son House and Charlie Patton and forwards to the nihilistic energy and smart lyrics of punk and new wave.
Hemming’s guitar playing is simple and direct, often alternating single-note verses with strummed choruses or the use of a slide on tracks such as “Cigarette Blues”. He also favors repetitive, droning riffs in tracks like “Lies”. Which sounds like Broken Man should be dull and dirge-like, and it could be were it not for Hemming’s remarkable voice. Sounding vulnerable one moment, furious another and world weary the next, Hemming constantly produces unexpected melodies, holding notes he shouldn’t really hold and moving on from notes you expect him to settle on. At times, there are hints of Jim Morrison’s smooth, distant baritone (“I Make A Living”) or desperation of Chris Cornell (“What I Once Had”) while at other times it is difficult to even make out the lyrics as they are mumbled and slurred, but the end result is all Hemming.
There is a palpable energy on a number of songs such as “This City”, where Hemming spits out the lyrics with a dismissive sneer that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Dr Feelgood record. But it is the quieter songs that are perhaps most impressive. In particular, the primarily a capella “It Rained So Hard” has blues, folk and gospel influences and is a emotionally powerful statement of intent.
Hemming is a noted fan of Jack Kerouac and the influence of the likes of “On The Road” is discernable in Hemming’s lyrics. On “Found My Way” he sings in a voice as old and weary as the hills: “Made my way to Memphis, and down to New Orleans, tried to make a name there, but came apart at the seams. I tried a time in Nashville, down in Tennessee. Tried to make a home there, but it’s just not for me.”
Hemming describes his music as “gothic Americana” and that’s as good a label as any. Part blues, part folk, part rock and part gospel, Broken Man is a collection of songs of bleak beauty and resigned acceptance of the lottery of life. It is also a fascinating and highly enjoyable release.