Kirsten Johnstone reviews Steve Abel's third album Luck/Hope.
It was as the hero of Film-maker Florian Habicht’s black and white gothic fairytale Woodenhead, back in 2003 that I first heard the voice of Auckland singer-songwriter Steve Abel.
Like the baritones of The National’s Matt Berninger and Bill Callahan - and at the rougher end, Tom Waits and Delaney Davidson - it’s a voice that feels lived in, beaten, heart-broken and slumped against a wall drunk, bottle of whiskey still in hand. Abel has been playing this part a long time.
In Woodenhead his deep range and depressing songs were perfectly cast as the voice of dump-hand Gert, who guides the mute Princess Plum on a perilous journey. That film wasn’t the end of collaborations between Abel and Habicht, they’ve done several music videos together, and Abel’s song ‘Sidewalk Doves’, released late last year, was inspired by footage from Habicht’s Love Story. And last week came Habicht’s video for Abel’s song ‘Best Thing’. It depicts a couple of lovers coming together, maybe in a hotel room, and getting - literally - dirty. It’s a gorgeous matching of sound and vision, slow, dreamy, and intimate.
It’s no wonder that he took out The Saddest Song in the World Competition in Berlin in 2009. Could you imagine him singing a happy song? ‘Best Thing’ was written 20 years ago, and I’m assuming a few other songs on Luck/Hope have had a long gestation period. Abel doesn’t seem one to hurry - most of these recordings were made seven years ago. He’s blamed ‘birth, death, debt, despondency’ on the lag between records, and I’m guessing his day job as a Greenpeace crusader has kept him busy too. But it’s not like he needs to be worried about catching changing trends in music - these sounds are timeless.
His voice is at its best backed up by a woman’s; on a few of the songs on this album, it’s his friend Jolie Holland. Abel met the Texan Americana singer and fiddler when she was touring NZ - he invited her to his own gig, and she was inspired enough to jump up for some improv fiddle that night, sparking great collaborations over the years since.
He’s economical with his lyrics; ‘First Part’ has only ten words in it, but doesn’t need any more. It’s a perfect picture of a broken heart, wallowing, hopeless… and possibly drunk.
The title track tackles that feeling of being trapped, perhaps being tied down with a family, mortgage and responsibilities that I’m sure many men in their 40s feel - and the feeling that there could have been more to this life:
Boy, what force in thee
made you to set the gull free
that you can’t even free
your own man-self now?
oh that a young boy could
cut this trap from in me
the invisible string
that makes despondence
and the hopeless choker
For the most part Luck/Hope ambles on at a slow tempo, with delicate, sparse accompaniment, and only occasionally gets a little rowdier. The instrumental section of ‘Good Arm’ is the crest of the wave, where guitars, fiddle and electronics get turned up to .. at least 7.
For a collection of songs recorded and mixed in eight different studios, over seven years, with many different engineers and musicians, it’s surprisingly coherent. Well done Olli Harmer for pulling it all together in the mastering.
It’s a beautiful album, suited to lonely late night listening, and gloomy introspection.
Songs featured: Hospice For Destitute Lovers, Sidewalk Doves, Best Thing, Not going anywhere, First Part, Luck/Hope, Good Arm.
Luck/Hope is available on Kin’sland Records/Arcade Records