Whilst writing The Violence, last year’s dazzling musical chronicle of the Essex witch-hunts, Darren Hayman researched and adapted a repertoire of folk songs from the civil war period. On Bugbears he has kitted them out and sent them to march, packaged as a companion album. The result is a collection of traditional music like I never heard: a stripped-down, acoustic album that plays the material fairly straight – but with a few twists.
The best thing about these twists is that they are subtle. Whilst the modern way of recording old music is to speed it up, make it danceable (a la Bellowhead), Hayman has slowed things down. He’s taken songs that sound as if they were originally suited to revelry and gusto, and relaxed them, lingered on them, exposed their thoughtfulness. This, in its way, is very modern. As is Hayman’s delivery, which feels immediate, unforced and conversational. His tone has a certain knowingness about it – a lift, almost a smile, in his voice that tells us we should read these songs through the prism of a modern value-set. When the list of ‘Impossibilities’ gets to Westminster ‘Wherein you will not see / A lawyer who will take his fee’, Hayman’s tone seems to tell us underneath this: ‘some things never change’.
Elsewhere, some key themes of The Violence are complemented, with songs about fear and superstition (the title track ‘Bugbears’) and the plight of women (‘Seven Months Married’), which feel like witness reports to the last album’s narratives, albeit ones moulded to purpose, like verbatim theatre. One of the most remarkable things about this record is that a seasoned folk audience might not hear a single song with which they are already familiar. This is a well-researched album, that eschews the obvious and over-recorded.
My own bugbear about Bugbears is that, in order to appease an implied contemporary indie audience, Hayman has cut much of his researched material very short indeed – and I was often left with the feeling that I was missing out by not getting to hear the full richness and renewed pleasure of further verses. These songs could have carried on all day as far as I was concerned: Bugbears is, in every way but superstitiously, utterly charming.
Words: Tom Moyser