Cult heroes don’t come much more tragic than folk/blues songwriter Tim Hardin.
A near-magnetic draw to self-destruction? Check – Hardin was hooked on opiates for most of his life, having allegedly discovered heroin whilst serving as an advisor in the Marine Corps in Vietnam. Premature death? Check – the Eugene, Oregon-born songwriter passed away in 1980 at the age of 39, his body ravaged by years of heavy-duty substance abuse. Commercial obscurity? Check – despite a catalogue of songs that’s been sent up the charts by other performers, Hardin’s own recordings evaded popular acclaim.
Whatever their merits otherwise, most cult artists are resistant to mainstream success for a reason. It’s not that hard to comprehend why the similarly gloomy tunes and threadbare poetry of, say, Townes van Zandt – another songwriter heavily covered by others, most notably on Danish band Rhonda Harris’s sorely underappreciated 2008 album Tell The World We Tried – didn’t exactly set the world alight. Hardin’s obscurity is harder to explain. On the surface, the perpetually heartbroken, sparse folk/blues-hued balladry that populates his albums (and this excellent tribute) might not be the easiest of sells. Hardin, however, packed both a richly resonant voice and an innate ability to sweeten his painful pills with deceptively simple, bittersweet melodies that sound like they’ve been around forever, just waiting to be plucked out of the ether.
As with most tributes, the Full Time Hobby-curated Reason to Believe faces a dilemma. Stay too close to the original, and there’ll be comments about the pointlessness of the exercise. Go a touch too wild with the reinvention, and the blasphemy card will be flashed. Mark Lanegan is undoubtedly a great singer, but his take on ‘Red Balloon’, which sticks respectfully close to the original arrangement, can’t quite compete with Hardin’s downtrodden delivery, unlike Lanegan’s previous visit to the Hardin songbook, ‘Shiloh Town’ off 1999’s I’ll Take Care of You. The Smoke Fairies’ ominously rumbling take on the perennial ‘If I Were a Carpenter’, meanwhile, oozes hypnotic atmospherics, but their, well, smoky take toys with misplacing the totemic melody.
The best renditions place Hardin’s sublime melodies on a pedestal but rejig the surroundings. Okkervil River (who have some form with Hardin appreciation, having named their 2005 concept album after his evergreen ‘Black Sheep Boy’, sadly not included here) get it just right with ‘It Will Never Happen Again’, possibly Hardin’s most pain-blasted song (and that’s saying something). The band keep the tearstained melody intact, but remould the surroundings into a smouldering piece of very 21st century celestial indie-rock-soul magic. It’s the crowning moment on an excellent tribute which manages the double-whammy that all tributes strive for: Reason to Believe serves as an ideal introduction to its subject’s works for newcomers, whilst sending converts back to revisit the timeless originals.