The Newcastle band’s oddball indie pop makes a pitch to those unsure whether to fret over civilizational decline or their own minor burdens: Why not both!
In one sense, Hen Ogledd’s third album is just what you’d expect from a low-key clan of indie-pop darlings: It has shabby guitars, crafty hooks, and sing-songy campfire melodies, all warmly interwoven like a winter cardigan. Should you wish, you could listen to Free Humans on those terms alone, filing it among the dainty troves of labels like K Records.
But in another sense—the one in which Free Humans is not only a catalog of heartbreak and minutiae, but also a sci-fi odyssey warning of political isolationism and climate apocalypse—it starts to feel quite unorthodox. Hidden in its lullabies are bouts of galactic anxiety and wry jabs at spacejet-setting one-percenters. A song called “Space Golf” berates the elites as they blast off to gentrify Jupiter; “Time Party” rallies us to “Bomb the banks! Shrink the economy!” Free Humans makes a pitch to those unsure whether to fret over civilizational decline or their own minor burdens, and the advice is emphatic: Why not both!
The record’s multitudes should surprise nobody familiar with the ever unpredictable Richard Dawson. Before Hen Ogledd, the Newcastle bard was known for mythic solo masterworks that his devotees could chew over for years. By contrast, the band he assembled with outré harpist Rhodri Davies, multi-instrumentalist Sally Pilkington, and art curator Dawn Bothwell has now released two bite-size albums in as many years, while Dawson’s homegrown project with Pilkington, Bulbis, spawned some 49 ambient and kosmische EPs in lockdown.
Despite sometimes having the air of a kitschy sideshow, Hen Ogledd is now its own thriving community: Each member illustrates some corner of Free Humans’ doomed dystopia before passing along the mic, like class nerds presenting a meticulous school project. The loose end-of-days theme gives rise to interstellar dance soirees (“Time Party”), ancient rumblings of extinction (“Feral”), and—in an improbably romantic finale of pumping drum machines and prog-folk fireworks—a mass exodus into a “very big ball of light” (“Skinny Dippers”).
Nothing about this silly-serious concept is as wonderful as the band’s delight in it. Take a simple couplet from “Space Golf,” which envisages the lives of the rich after they steal away from Earth for good: “Infinity pool on Ganymede/You took so much more than you need.” You can practically see the lightbulb flashing as that ludicrous rhyme pops into Pilkington’s head, presumably while she peruses a list of Jupiter’s moons. Likewise, from “Crimson Star”:
Those were the best days of my life
I was a singer in a band
Aboard the first of the big cruise ships
Touring the seven planets and their moons
This is Dawson leaning precariously into his Douglas Adams caper, synths swooping beneath him like a magic carpet. As with much else here, it’s a perilous leap of faith performed in a tone of utter humility, in this case while channelling the textures and emotional beats of lavish ’80s sophistipop.
The band’s kids-in-a-candy-store approach to modulators and electronics leads to some questionable indulgence (the gear credits read like components of a Flaming Lips song-title generator: Bassman, Orbit, the Depths, Bubbletron, Randy’s Revenge…), but in good twee-pop fashion, the unit shambles along with a camaraderie that brings us in on the antics. Songs like “Farewell” are the backbone, crammed with dense and rousing songcraft; other highlights, such as “Bwganod” and “Skinny Dippers,” are more like gas giants, vast and nebulous enough for funk, offbeat synthpop, and sweary Scotch poetry to swarm around their rocky core.
For all its knotty themes and interludes, Free Humans is guided by a childlike innocence: the betrayal of a planet condemned and abandoned by its rich, and the unexpected relief of its liberation. Our intuition of a climate catastrophe has fuelled many such visions of a beautiful apocalypse, as the culture writer Al Horner notes; they can manifest in everything from stories of post-pandemic biodiversity to verdant video games like The Last of Us. It’s easy to see why these apocalyptic fantasies might appeal to an anarchic bunch like Hen Ogledd (not least Dawson, who loves both gaming and UFO conspiracies), but at its heart, Free Humans is a passionate rebuke to both fatalism and futurism. It’s the sound of four cosmic souls resolutely staying put—not wanderers but wonderers, still in love with their own bizarre planet, and baffled by the senselessness of leaving it behind.
Buy: Rough Trade
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