Withered Hand – How To Love: Album Review

With scimitar sharp honesty perfusing this deeply affecting record, Withered Hand shows his true self off to the listener, despair and celebration but a pindrop from each other.

Release Date: 28th April 2023

Label: Reveal Records

Format: CD / vinyl / digital

Every now and then there comes along an album that makes you think. Sure, it helps if it is also chock full of catchy melodies, constructed with knowing glances at the colliding worlds of rock, pop, folk and Americana, but, however much the tunes linger in your ear, it will be the lyrical content that sticks. Perhaps as you look guiltily at the pint in your hand, or as you throw yet another bottle in the blue recycling bin. Withered Hand, aka Dan Willson, has been there, done that, scraped the bottom and survived. A presence on the Edinburgh scene for some time, this one-time Londoner has a brief back catalogue of always decent releases, gaining some acclaim, and straddling a rootsy mix of styles. But this is his first new material for 9 years, a period of time that has brought about struggles and issues aplenty, threatening to keelhaul a musical life that didn’t even start until his 30th birthday. But enough, now, of that, let his songs steer the journey.

Feelings leaps out of the speakers, an impassioned vocal plea over scratched guitar: “Don’t stop, tell me that I earned this one“, ahead of spelling out the predicament, “One is one too many, too many’s not enough”. And, whilst it might sound dark in content, as the band swoop in, horns give it a jaunty and Stax-y vibe, swirling keys and the full guitar, bass, and drums, and it is a curiously celebratory requiem to self-destruction. A pealing guitar motif carries the feel of soul-scourging forward, an anthem of conjoined love and hate. Followed by Crippled Love, a gentler piece, picked electric over a metronomic rhythm section, already the bumps are goosing up all over. Heart-achingly poignant, the references to the desperation are vivid. Out of it on stage, searching for a particular lifeline in the audience, craving the stability of a love, all at odds with the expected/received image of the unravelling troubadour. Heady stuff and brutally honest: “At the Lexington, I drink myself under the table, you singing come as you are, I come undone“. Backing vocals here come from Kenny Anderson (King Creosote) and Kathryn Williams. (Song of the year, so far?)

Waking Up is another tremendous horn-drenched belter, Willson’s voice coming out all Joe Walsh, a sort of Life’s Been So Good To Me. Or not so good. Again, both the tune and the words cherry pick small and astute references to the pantheon of modern music, it becoming almost hymnal, as it unfolds. The Weight, meet Tracks Of My Tears? To appreciate that Willson was raised a Jehovah’s Witness adds an additional and possibly terrible realisation into the mix, as to how (any) ordained orthodoxy can fuck the mind and pile on the guilt. Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but that flavour of a now secular mind coping with a higher concept of spirituality is quite uplifting. And very moving. A searing plea, the arrangement is spot on, which is a good place to reference the players, the band being Malcolm Benzie, guitars, Fraser Hughes, on bass, Owen Curtis Williams, drums, and Peter Liddle on keyboards. Additional bvs come from Pam Berry. The brass, with are presence much larger than the three tracks they appear on is provided by Richard Merchant, Ross McCrae and Lynsey Payne. Willson sings and plays additional guitar

The title track is another slow burn, with a scuzzy guitar that suddenly reminds me who the rhythm section have been reminding me of, that being Crazy Horse, providing a slow and steady insistent pulse, a fraction behind the beat. In my book, there is no finer compliment, with the guitar and vocal here not 100 miles from ol’ Shakey himself. Coasting now, that Horse reference is even more pronounced, for the next track, delectably so. An anthemic song, it captures that moment when Willson must have accepted his helplessness, that feel oozing out of every note, the eerie organ, this time from Benedikt K. Hermanson, adding huge atmosphere and gravitas. The serenity prayer is the mantra of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Serenity Prayer is the name of this song. But, worry not, it isn’t religious, or doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t cause upset to anyone fearful of the same. Even with “thy will be done” repeated time and again, there is no preaching or proselytizing here, just an acceptance that demons can’t always be fought alone. With Anderson again adding some vocal presence, it may not quite be the best track here, but it is certainly the most powerful.

Misery And Company now suggests a greater sense of moving onward and upward, and is, I think, a song of cautious hope: “If my heart, my heart’s still beating, my heart, it’s beating over again”. There are even celebratory handclaps bedded into the chorus of this one, swelled this time by Williams. The handclaps reprise for Give Myself Away, with some lovely oo-oos as the band chime in behind Willson and Benzie’s lead guitar, the song a veritable hop skip and jump, Willson cock a hoop on life itself. Still, Quiet Voice maintains this momentum, flowing with the keyboard swirl and chatter of chipped guitars, the lyrics equally grateful and surprised that what was being looked for was, as so often, there already, inside of him. I can’t help but think Willson and Mike Scott, think Glastonbury Song, would have a rare old blether, were they to meet, so much territory do they seemingly share, irrespective of any addiction issues. Anyway, another tremendous song.

To close the set, Willson drops a gear, the song opening with just him and an acoustic guitar, it then undergoing a gradual build as the band comes in, guitar first, followed by a string section and a full chorale: the WH Salvation choir, no less. Possibly, and for the first time, this one does tip the scales a jot toward the overly evangelical, but one can’t begrudge Willson any of that, even if it is. It provides a suitable endplate to the project, giving a clue to his current state of mind and body. And, by the time it is arrived at, you know, it fits. Seamlessly. As in context is all. (So, advice here offered freely, don’t skip or cherry pick: this is an album that begs your attention, start to finish. 45 minutes of your time, give or take a minute. Play it through, in one go, just like we used to. Then play it again.

Here’s Waking Up in a solo acoustic version:

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