A full five years on from Withered Hand’s unembellished debut Good News, on first listen to New Gods you’d be forgiven for thinking that Dan Willson has spent those years sunning himself on some far-flung beach mending whatever heartbreaks and regrets he’s still trying to come to terms with. Out goes the lo-fi, almost ramshackle, production that characterised his debut and in its place comes a dazzling sun-drenched twang of melody that could be healthily compared to Belle & Sebastian or The Shins.
Indeed, the album includes appearances by Stevie Jackson and Chris Geddes of B&S (among other notable guests) as well as being produced by Tony Doogan so it’s unsurprising this influence can be heard in the record especially in the opening few songs. ‘Horseshoe’ is a perfect example: capturing deeply infectious hooks with polished accessibility, it’s delivered with familiar, swoonsome optimism. ‘King of Hollywood’ pursues a similar path, chock-full of gusto and amiability and splashed with just a hint of country and western.
Dig a little deeper though and it seems Willson is still struggling with his demons when it comes to love and insecurity. The album takes a notably darker turn on the title track with Willson becoming brutally self-deprecating and with songs entitled ‘Life Of Doubt’ and ‘Fall Apart’, it’s clear that he’s still capable of unambiguously baring his troubles for the world to see. Ostensibly, the album can seem to project a mawkish sense of melancholy but rather than smother you until you’re gasping for air – or switching it off – the fuller and more polished production ultimately leaves you yearning for it.
All over the record, there’s a treasure-trove of delights to delve into: ‘Black Tambourine’ is superbly crafted indie-pop gem, full of joyful jingle-jangles while ‘Fall Apart’ displays the mournful, hooky pop that Withered Hand so excels at. It’s an entirely wonderful album made all the better by the clear progression in Willson’s confessional and articulate song-writing. It seems entirely appropriate that as winter retreats and spring rapidly appears on the horizon, Dan Willson has produced an album befitting of the changing season; breezy and warm but always with that icy, unexpected bite. And while it’s certainly not a massive departure in terms of Withered Hand’s development, it’s a hop, skip and a jump in the right direction. That five year wait was certainly worth it.
Words: Chris James Peet