Eight years on from his last release, the Dallas-based singer-songwriter returns with nine songs whose recording he describes as “emotionally difficult,” though the resulting LP is unarguably his most rewarding.
Recorded in rural Wiltshire with his friends from acclaimed alt.country outfits The Snakes and The Redlands Palomino Company, the record – Tommy’s third as a solo artist – draws on a wealth of musical styles, from gospel-tinged soul to delicate pop balladry and driving rock ’n’ roll, while at its centre sits its author’s unmistakable voice. Fragile and reflective one moment, bristling with soulful intensity the next, it’s a unique ingredient of Tommy’s music, and one that has aided his rise, over 20 years, from frontman with raucous cult rockers Swank Deluxe to multi-faceted solo performer and respected face on the Dallas music scene.
Magnificent Bastard carries the weight of this history and more, mixing punk and ’70s rock influences on the brooding ‘Backburner’, reminiscing over a well-spent youth on the title track and unravelling threads that stretch back to Tommy’s childhood.
In the wistful ‘Homecoming Mum’, the singer recalls the schoolboy practice of buying elaborate wearable bouquets for their sweetheart – a Southern tradition at homecoming football games – while the album’s centerpiece, the anthemic ‘Save Me (The Ballad of Odell Barnes Jr)’, finds him pondering the plight of a high-school friend who, convicted of murder, ended up on Death Row. Tommy describes this song, which he started to write eight years ago, as “the most important story of the record.”
“It really affected me,” he says of the moment he found out that Barnes, who Tommy hadn’t seen since his late teenage years, had been killed by lethal injection in 2001. “I don’t know if he did the murder or not, or anything like that, but I want people to know what it is and to know the story.”
While these character pieces showcase Tommy Hale the storyteller, others suggest he has naked sincerity licked, too. Can I Lay Down Next To You? and Simple Song, the album’s most tender tracks, make the listener feel as if they’re eavesdropping on private moments in their author’s life. In fact, so direct is the latter song that the singer felt himself squirm when he played it to producer/guitarist Simon Moor and multi-instrumentalist John O’Sullivan – the album’s co-writers and two people who, alongside drummer Dan Tilbury and keyboardist/engineer Nick Beere, make up a creative team for whom Tommy has “tremendous respect.”
“I think this is hands down the best collection of work I’ve ever put together,” he says. “And a lot of that’s because of the talents of all those other guys.”
Magnificent Bastard is released through Holiday disaster Records on 30 September.