Darren Hayes / “Secret Codes and Battleships”
I’ll start this review by saying that while I don’t think I could ever truly say I’m anyone’s “biggest fan”, (Many a “Stan” has made me realize that even my most intense fandom never even comes close. ) if there is one artist that I could easily “Stan” over it would be Darren Hayes.
Darren Hayes is not-quite a “household name” here in North America. This, quite frankly, is a tragedy and in my personal opinion, one of the biggest things wrong in the North American pop music scene.
Though you may not recognize the name, you DO know his work, even if you don’t think you do. Hayes was responsible for some of the most memorable pop hits of the 1990’s with his musical partner Daniel Jones as part of Australian electro-pop duo Savage Garden.
Still not sure you’re familiar? Click here for a refresher courtesy of YouTube.
It’s been over 10 years since Savage Garden parted ways and Hayes’ went solo. Within that ten years he has released three solid and some (Me) would go so far as to say “Visionary” pop albums. (2001’s “Spin” was followed by the deeply personal and experimental “The Tension & The Spark” in 2003 and and double disc pop masterpiece “This Delicate Thing We`ve Made” in 2007.) Still, every time he releases a new album the media tend to gloss over his solo work to use Savage Garden’s legacy to sell readers on solo material that has evolved far beyond the scope of it’s origin.
With the release of his fourth solo album, “Secret Codes and Battleships,” Hayes again explores a number of different facets of romantic and interpersonal relationships. (There’s a range of scenarios from insecurity, communication breakdowns, unrequited love, lost love, death, etc.) While that list certainly seems like a downer, there is plenty of hope on this album, despite the hardship.
I have to admit that I struggled ever-so-momentarily with this album at first. My feelings about it now, three weeks later, are significantly changed – but on my first listen I had difficulty letting go of the Darren Hayes from his last two albums. My resentment about this album being promoted as a “return to form” and compared mainly to the first Savage Garden album, when all of his solo material has been near genius made me realize that I too was unfairly holding him to the standard of his earlier work and perhaps not giving this album a chance. (Also, I was ridiculously addicted to Kelly Clarkson’s latest album /Click here to check out that review/ which is an empowerment/breakup album and I was man-hating and independent-thinking and really just wanted to be listening to that…)
After the epiphany detailed above, “Secret Codes and Battleships” penetrated my icy, I-don’t-need-a-man heart and melted it. Then, I fell in love.
So now I present, my track by track thoughts…
Track #1 – The album opens with “Taken By The Sea“, a song about being saved by love but being afraid to give yourself over to it. It begins with a slightly music-box-esque intro before Darren’s ever-breathtaking vocals begin and they’re both met by a throbbing beat. From the get-go, the track reveals a rather cinematic album theme. The musical arrangement is epic and beautiful and paints a certain kind of high-seas adventure imagery, as do the lyrics “and I want you, and that’s so terrifying.. I am an island, you are an ocean, and all of my sadness taken by the sea…”
Track #2 – “Don’t Give Up” is definitely radio-friendly single material and is the albums namesake in the lyric: “Well I can’t believe it’s come to this, all our secret codes and battleships..” Hayes sings about a relationship that is enduring difficult times and assures his lover that they shouldn’t throw in the towel: “I want to run away from this, but I’d never leave a sinking ship, and without you in it there’s no point to our story…” Hayes vocal performance, particularly in the songs climax, is powerful and filled with emotion it as he cries “don’t ever let me go” in his trademark falsetto. Another home run!
Track #3 – “Nearly Love” tells the story of a man who is ready to admit that he has been settling for his current partner and that he’s realized that his “nearly love is not.. real enough.. to be the one, to be the one.” For such sad subject matter, this song is rather infectious. Melodically, feels like it pulls from many eras and genres and it makes me feel nostalgic but for what, I’m unsure. Catchy and wonderful, but puzzling.
Track #4 – “Black Out The Sun” contains some of Hayes’ most emotional and bleak lyrics to date. Originally written for another artist (reportedly, Leona Lewis), Hayes had an epiphany in studio and realized this track should define the sound of his next album. (For that fact, I say that we all give The Pop Gods a big upz!)
Mourning a lost love, Hayes’ cries in his aforementioned trademark falsetto “there’s no other way, there’s no joy there’s no meaning, just this hollowed out feeling, now all the loves gone, and nothing grows here, and I just feel wrong, so black out the sun..” The music is equal parts minimal and lush. The beat, while relatively simple, is layered with a heart-wrenching orchestral string arrangement. Darren’s vocals are at their very best here and this may be one of the greatest songs he has released as a solo artist. Check out the equally cinematic and beautiful video, below:
The deluxe edition also includes a live performance of this track from The Attic, which is fantastic.
Track #5 – “Talk Talk Talk” was the album’s first single, released at the start of summer, 2011. Accompanied by a beautiful music video that mirrors the stunning design work done for the album’s booklet and jacket design by John Gilsenan, “Talk Talk Talk” is a piece of pop perfection. The beat throbs and Hayes’ vocals, always on point, plead with his lover to talk it out instead of giving up on their relationship. The deluxe edition also contains a live version of this track from The Attic, which slows it down and transforms it’s feeling of urgency and sadness.
Track #6 – “Bloodstained Heart” contains traces of U2 and Coldplay in its climactic moments. I’m about to make what some may consider to be a bold statement, “Bloodstained Heart” is SO beautiful and SO romantic and SO radio-friendly that Mercury Records should not rest until it is Hayes’ greatest hit of his career. This song deserves consideration among the canon of brilliant pop music and is leaps and bounds above “Truly Madly Deeply” and “I Knew I Loved You.” Breathtaking! Watch the video below and see if you agree:
Track 7 – “God Walking Into The Room” is another epic production; this time harkening back to an 80’s or early 90’s vibe. The track haunts in a stubborn lament for a love that is probably lost but is still all consuming. “You and I, we were splintered, cut in two like earth and the sea, I say a prayer, that in the distance, my faith in love, will bring you back to me…” While it’s not a likely single, “God Walking…” is a solid album track and is far from forgettable.
Track 8 – “Hurt“, however, is a different story. In this song, we hear Darren giving us a moment of pause to consider if this relationship with him is really what we want. He, afterall, has baggage and will probably only hurt us, anyway. While I wouldn’t say I dislike this track, it’s probably my least favorite of the standard edition songs. The track is certainly catchy, particularly on the hook, where Hayes reveals: “I can make you hurt, I can take you down so low I’ll make you want to cry.. I can make you say goodbye..” Overall, it’s just not up to par with the others in my ears.
Track 9 – “Roses” is about appreciating the things in your life that are beautiful and positive because “You can’t smell the roses when they’re gone… no it’s not a rehearsal, you only get one life to make it right…”. The backing is ever so ominous as Darren sets up the premise of finding out that you only have 23 hours to live and asks “How would you spend your last night on earth, would you kiss your enemy, say sorry first?. The music builds and builds only to explode in a heavenly blend of uplifting pop perfection on the chorus. This song definitely reminds me of the Savage Garden era, but defninitely carries the wisdom and groundedness that only years of growing can bring. An album highlight! Gorgeous!
Track 10 – “Stupid Mistake” gets points for originality because this song sounds like nothing else Darren has done that I can think of right now melodically. The classic Darren elements are all there: lush strings, pulsating beat, soaring falsetto, emotion, on-point lyrics and yet they’re presented in a different way that still sounds distinctly like Darren. The subject matter is pretty self-explanatory, as we find Darren singing from the point of view of someone regretting a mistake that cost them them their love: “I got lazy, on the wrong side of love now I`m searchin`, every face in the crowd for you.”
Track 11 – “Cruel Cruel World” is probably my favorite non-single track from SC&B. The opening guitar is hypnotic and melancholy. Then comes Darren`s voice singing of facing the world without one`s vices to numb them to it and taking shelter from it only in the love of another. “Nobody gets me, nobody gets me like you, and everyone left me, everyone left me, everyone left me but you… You’re the only one, the only one, the only one who gets through… you get me through this cruel, cruel world.”
Track 12 – “The Siren’s Call” immediately reminds me of Enigma’s “Return to Innocence”. While it seems like an obvious comparison as it also samples some vocals similar to those heard on the chorus of the 1993 hit, it also follows a similar chord progression on the refrain. (Mash Up anyone?) “The Siren’s Call” is lovely and in the scheme of the standard edition of the album, it brings good closure to the romantic, cinematic adveture that is the album as a whole. That being said, for me personally, this song isn`t a favorite, but it has grown on me a lot and will probably continue to do so.
Deluxe Edition (Starts Here…)
Track 13 – “Explode” immediately seems like a track from the premiere Savage Garden album. Something about it just feels like it would have fit that set better than this one. It is, however, a great song. The vocals are a little more subdued than the other album tracks have been and more heavily processed. This track feels a little more electronic with less organic instrumentation than most of the main set as well.
Track 14: “Perfect” sounds a little bit like “Step Into the Light” (single from Hayes’ last album “This Delicate Thing We’ve Made”) on the verses. This track also seems a little less organic than the main album set, but lyrically explores more of the same content: (“Our love, was perfect, the pieces of a puzzle lying on the floor…”, “and all we could’ve been, was like a sailing boat in the sand…”)
Track 15: “Tiny Little Flashlights” is one of my favorite bonus tracks on the deluxe edition. It’s production is relatively simple, but the vocals are stunning and the words are so heartfelt. It tells the timeless story of assuring a loved one that you will always be there for them in a different way: assuring that even “when you’re upside down, and smoke is in the air, and when you’re falling apart, you’ll see those tiny little flashlights leading the way in the dark.. tiny little red lights leading the way to my heart”.
Track 16 – “Nothing” is a track about realizing the love has died off that sounds a touch unfinished due to the decision on how to treat the vocals. They’re slightly filtered to sound a little bit a.m. radio and as a result, don’t blend into the backing particularly well which – for me personally – disappoints in a song I would probably love otherwise. The reverb used works nicely on the parts when the music is minimal but on the bigger parts is lost. When compared to the rest of this era, one can understand this one not being a main album cut.
Track 17 – “Glorious” is a touch of melancholy but hopeful beauty and probably the one of these bonus tracks that could have worked best on the 12-track standard edition. I may have traded “Hurt” for this one, honestly. This song seems to be about a loved one who has passed on, but choosing to remember the beauty and joy of their life. It also talks about how someone’s passing can make us think about our own mortality: “I’m a little bit hopeful, that we all carry on, but part of me still thinks we are just stardust…” Absolutely beautiful!
The Verdict: We’re sorry to have kept you waiting so long here at Pop Heaven’s Pearly Gates Mr. Hayes, however after careful deliberation (a.k.a. repeated listenings), “Secret Codes and Battleships” has won over our affections.
Darren devotees, if on the first listen you were uncertain, as I was, give it another listen or two – you will soon realize that Kelly Clarkson’s fierce single-lady-ness was keeping you from realizing its brilliance and you too, will fall in love with this album the way you have with everything else this gift from the Pop Gods has released.
This album is romantic and heartbreaking and breathtaking and beautiful and everything that we’ve come to expect from a Darren Hayes album over the years. While I’m not sure it breaks entirely new ground, the standard edition is a rather cohesive body of work and the deluxe edition bonus tracks aren’t all masterpieces, but there’s enough wonderful to make the deluxe edition well worth the purchase!
“Secret Codes and Battleships” is POP HEAVEN, and it’s out now!