It’s not hard to see why Dan Willson, aka Withered Hand, was quick to be labelled ‘anti-folk’ when he first appeared circa-2008: everything about him cried ramshackle and raw. There were the grainy old YouTube videos of Willson playing along with members of Meursault at an Edinburgh house party; the acoustic guitar, plastered with the logo of K Records and other indie stickers; the voice, on first listen frail and injured, and the underdog tales, during which you’re sure that Willson is never more than a heartbeat away from taking himself down a peg or two.
But scratch beneath the surface, and the tag doesn’t seem so fitting. The voice, with time, becomes warm and lovely, as meek and sweet as a wish in a well. Superb debut set Good News was a search for substance, for identity and kinship, for spirituality and love. What, in this hyper-connected, post-everything age of absurdity, could be more societal and folky than the anxiety of social awkwardness?
Album number two, New Gods, doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Willson is still capable of turning out the loserisms on request, evidenced by song titles such as “Fall Apart” and “Life of Doubt” (indeed, he describes himself as ‘pigeon-toed’ on the record’s opening line), but he has clearly spent the intermittent five years refining his craft, returning with a sound that’s fuller without sacrificing the tunes, and songs which are more philosophical than slapstick. Willson has taken another step away from the anti-folk misnomer, determinedly embracing a wonderful brand of Byrdsian jangle-pop and in the process, producing a record which makes up for the frustratingly long wait with aplomb.
Good News reflected on a childhood spent as a Jehovah’s Witness and formative years chasing punk music and failed romance. This retrospection returns occasionally – the brilliant “Fall Apart”, in which Willson regrets the adolescent tragedy of feigned indifference – but his pen flows more contemporaneously and broadly here. There are tales from the road, the dustbowl Americana of “California” and the gorgeous harmonies of “Love Over Desire”, and he takes aim once more at the preciousness of organised religion on “King of Hollywood” (“Some of you should get with my God/he hates about everything”). Each song is delivered with customary wit, perhaps less ascerbic than on Good News, but equally rich and self-probing.
And while the takeaway from the debut was the one-liners, New Gods is all about the music. The sound has more depth, yes, but nothing is over-egged. There are more hooks than a pirates’ convention, and subime melodies throughout. A few reference points fly past your ears more than once. Darren Hayman has frequently performed with Withered Hand, and Hefner’s influence on tracks such as “Between Love and Ruin” is marked. The classic power pop of Big Star and The Byrds can be heard in the arpeggios and jangles of “Black Tambourine”, while “Fall Apart” and “Horseshoe” have a surprising hint of 90s indie pop about them.
New Gods is an unusually good album, and is best encapsulated by the title track, the kind of song R.E.M. lived in the shadow of for a quarter of a century. “Now tell me we are not all the same,” goes Willson’s stargazing philosophy, slotting beautifully between the dreamy rolls of mandolin and bass. It’s one of the loveliest songs you could ever expect to hear; a lucid moment of perfection from a songwriter whose creativity continues to feed off his own imperfections.