Robert Hallward – “9″ Review
Robert Hallward – “9” reviewed by Steve Norman
A wanderer above the mist, momentarily hesitating to contemplate, one more time, the nature of himself as absolute; being of himself and the world before him, and not yet before him, but about to be decided by his own hand…
Or maybe the cover of “9” is simply telling us that when the photographer pressed the button on her camera, Robert happened to be standing between some trees holding an egg.
Either is likely, or equally likely is another (although I’ll bet I’m not far off with my Nietzsche thinking!), and this is the undoubtedly intentional essence of the enigma presented to us in “9” and, as ever, in the artist himself.
Exploring further into the inlay, it immediately reveals that this album, the ninth in a series of nine, was “recorded roughly, but with love.” To my untrained ear, it doesn’t sound especially rough, but has clearly been recorded with love.
The glam-pomp and complexity of “Written on the Edge of the Moon” have evolved into something that is sometimes equally complex but always less tightly wound, both in terms of the artist as he comes across, clearly at ease with whatever conclusion it is hat “9” brings, and in terms of a much ‘looser’ listening experience, perhaps in preparation to be heard live this time around? We can but hope
From a slow-burn opening, hinting at the memory of what came before it, first track “Great Lone Figures” emerges into vintage Hallward; a soft-spoken, piano-led exploration into the dismantling of our need for belief in a higher purpose.
The disease of genius follows in “Chapter 25,” with piano gradually taking a backseat to a rich tambourine, building the tempo towards a Roxy-esque guitar introducing the concept of love over religion in “Whatever We Believe,” where Rob’s wonderful grip of using theatrics as an entity in its own right within a song come to the fore. Theatre established, the journey continues through themes of gnosticism, isolation, global politics, genius, love, genius, madness and love; I’ve skipped a few (simply to avoid this turning from review into War and Peace), but to this point “9” seems to be a summary of where Robert is today, sometimes via what brought him here.
As the album, and the closing chapters of something bigger that we’re never really party to, progress towards conclusion, “Share” tones down the ongoing theatrics, a sole piano accompanying a more understated vocal, telling us that “there’s enough for all the world” but still with a hint of self-doubt, until “Sweet, Sweet Revolution” picks up the pace once more as the void filled by the need for a god is filled by love instead.
And then we close with the title track, “9.” And where to begin? The wanderer above the mist? The world before him? A being absolute? “One” emerging (as love?), but part of everything else as it changes for better or worse? One things for sure, in under four minutes this track cohesively throws us from one end of Robert’s eclectic – and occasionally eccentric – musical repetoire to the other, virtually serving as a recap of everything that’s come before. “One” fading into nine as “9” fades into nature. The rebirth of man? Or the rebirth of Man? There’s certainly more to it than it simply being the ninth album in a series – the number of heaven; the number of wisdom; the number of the hermit in a tarot deck; the fact that when multiplied, nine always reproduces itself (try it – 2 x 9 = 18 and 1 + 8 = 9, 4 x 9 = 36 and 3 + 6 = 9… try it!); that Jesus died in the ninth hour; that Beethoven wrote nine symphonies; that Robert was born on the ninth day of the month – I still don’t know, but it being a mystery as much as an album made it a thrilling final ride all the same!
Mysteries aside, and lazy as it may be, there’s little to be gained in denying the influence of a certain Mr Jones’ to both the vocal style and the overall feel of “9” – if you like Bowie, you’ll probably like this! In terms of arrangement, there’s also something of Brian Wilson lurking, from the use simple yet often surprising effects, through to the use of diverse instrumentation to enhance the melody.
However, fleeting comparisons simply to provide pop references to the potential listener are to deny the effervescent uniqueness that Robert has always delivered in his work, whether as a solo artist or going all the way back to the first time I experienced it (and in turn, dare I say, was influenced by it) in Uncle Strange.
And it’s that uniqueness – blending theatre into song, almost as a separate instrument – being given centre stage once again that stands out above all on this album. Except maybe the aforementioned love that went into it, which makes a welcome return.
I’m no expert in the German gothic romantic painter that the cover makes an apology to, but as a self-proclaimed embodiment of gothic romance (in my 90’s heyday, if less so now), I certainly feel qualified to say that with “9” there is little to apologise for!