Bradley Hathaway’s music is multigenerational and totally satisfying. From the full acoustic sound to the backing (and plunking) banjo, Hathaway provides a simple, beautiful sound. Nearly indescribable, the music soothes while provoking the listener to pay attention. With hat tips toward several past eras in music history, Hathaway strikes listeners as familiar, yet new and fresh. It’s a style and a new artist worth hearing and enjoying.
The opening track “Daddy’s Name” is subtle and effective in conjuring a range of emotions. His most important contribution to music in terms of new unique styling is in this subtle delivery. “Well I know you think you’re capable as you used to be driving all over town searching for me but you don’t know her name and you don’t know who she is and you don’t know if she’s married or if she has any kids…” This meandering, story-telling lyrical style influences How Long from beginning to end. The troubadour’s phrasing is a gift and Bradley Hathaway has it in spades.
The title track “How Long” is warm inside, like a cabin in the woods on a winter evening. “How long will you love me?” It’s romantic, yet skeptical. In some ways the song’s lyrics are much more indicative of a generation than perhaps Hathaway intended. While somewhat romantic, there’s a scathing unsureness. It’s almost as if the romantic ideal is too good to be true. The melody line is not terribly complicated, but it works with the subtle plunking banjo in the background and the prominent electric guitars in the foreground. And, after all, it is hopeful. “My love will survive the winter’s freeze… my love will blossom like the flowers in the spring…”
So those first two songs are pretty good, then on the third track there’s a new element… it’s a harmonizing female vocal that really finishes the sound. “Courthouse” feels like the classics of country music with a fresh, organic new life. It’s the best of both worlds, coming together in a track that stymies description, being both old fashioned (including a twangy old piano) and new, with top-of-the-line production. It is, in short, the kind of music that ought to be dominating radios that call themselves “country.”
“If I should die” has a much poppier sound to it. In fact, it comes across more Ben Folds than early country. It’s pop, but not in an insulting way. The female backing “oohhhs” help make the toe-tapping vibe really work well. “Is the world big or are we small? What is it that we want most of all?” Yet another generational-seeking track, this track is the most evident both lyrically and musically in revealing the “finding himself” ethos of the album. Oh… and there are horns. Cool, right?
“Been So Long” sounds so much like Neil Young that I searched the internet to see if it was a cover. That’s pretty much the highest compliment I could give an artist in this genre. The electric guitar again soars. The backing banjo pops and the lyrics soothe. If someone asked me what should be “the single” from this album, I’d probably pick this track. It’s not necessarily the most moving (“How Long”), but it’s the one most likely to have the broadest fan appeal.
The opening finger pick on “Beer Can” sounds more like it would be on some romantic track… but instead it’s a kind of spoken-word poem with acoustic background. Some fans are going to really love this style. It highlights Hathaway’s remarkably poetic lyricism. But then the song resolves… and becomes almost transcendental with the lyric, “he drifts off… into a better land.” It’s one of the most remarkable things I’ve heard since I’ve been seriously covering music. It’s artistic and wonderful. (The following “So Far” does the same kind of blended spoken-word and song. It’s also good.)
The last track “You Look So Pretty” is a love song of the highest order. It’s written from a man’s perspective to a woman that he loves. But what makes it great is the acoustic guitar lays softly over a gentle bass line. The writer is aware of the power of words and delivers them as if they hold the sway of emotions. It’s really an interestingly-delivered track.
All told this album was even better than I anticipated. While I had in mind a pretty typical folksy singer-songwriter, what I discovered was a lyricist and poet. I heard an artist with deep, seeking questions. I found someone who can put together the elements of a piece of music that transcends the immediate parts into a powerful, yet often subtle whole. This is a great piece of artistry and one that I hope the majority of our readers will seek to hear. Enjoy Bradley Hathaway for his words and his music.