History is full of what-ifs: what if Kurt Cobain had lived to middle age? What if the Russians had won the Cold War? What if Tom Waits had gobbled some Prozac with his whisky and fallen in love? I think I can answer the last one: Big Harp’s White Hat is the sporadically glorious album he might have made.
It is melodic, harmonic guitar music, built of simple chord progressions. Each track sounds instantly familiar, but some are more memorable than others. There are steel-stringed guitars, sleigh-bells and strings – the armory of a country musician – but there’s less bravado and more sorrow. And the sorrow is subtle, and laced with joy.
The songs almost interlock to form a song cycle, which travels through place and time, telling a story of heartache and love. The homespun wisdom and rural sound could have been schmaltzy, but there’s a deep sincerity in the lyrics, and in the tone of Chris Senseney’s remarkable voice. It’s not surprising that the album was written and performed by two musicians in love.
“Oh Nadine” is probably the most daring song on the album, because it’s the most overtly emotional, with the most potential to be cringeworthy. It’s a letter sung by a father to a runaway daughter. In fact it sounds perfect – the lyrics are full of the chatter we fill the air with to avoid saying how we feel. It’s as evocative as Sufjan Stevens, and has a gorgeous jazz piano which says everything the lyrics couldn’t.
There are low points. The song that was hard to take seriously was “White Hat”: a chorus of “sometimes don’t you just want to try that black hat on” sound like a country tribute to LulzSec. That said, it would make an excellent anthem for any hackers wanting to click their spurs.
White Hat isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s a beautifully compiled scrapbook of twentieth-cenutry American music. It feels like an inheritance of songs, some of which are truly timeless, but some of which are just tradition.