Ben Watt’s work, as half of Everything but the Girl and as a DJ/producer responsible for a series of deep house/techno singles over the past decade, has always been cut through with a vein of melancholy. So it feels natural for him, now 51 years old, to tackle a contemplative, folk-tinged singer/songwriter style on his second solo effort.
What surprises on Hendra is the darkness and rueful reflection that hovers over these 10 songs. He worries about keeping a grip on memories of the past, such as scattering his father’s ashes on “Matthew Arnold’s Field,” while trying to make peace with getting older himself. What Watt can’t seem to wrestle confidently with is the present: On “The Gun,” he offers an earnest but stumbling take on our culture’s firearms obsession, while “Young Man’s Game,” offers a self-deprecating look at his efforts to keep up with youth culture.
Musically, Watts is revisiting the influences of his past while attempting to modernize them slightly: The tattered psychedelia of Robert Wyatt and the rambling spirit Van Morrison and Harry Nilsson all live within Hendra, but spattered with synths and field recordings. As comfortable as Watt feels here, Hendra ultimately doesn’t leave much of a mark. Only his collaborators, including David Gilmour and former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, manage to lend some weight to these feathery tunes. The songs flutter by pleasantly enough before fading off into silence, but leave few lingering hooks that will have you wishing they’d return.