If you asked Hamell on Trial what he’d name his latest album when it was taking its primordial shape, it sure as hell wouldn’t have been The Happiest Man in the World.
“I’d been married for 23 years, and then my marriage broke up. And I didn’t expect it,” the New York artist said. “I’d been sober for, oddly enough, 26 years when my marriage ended. I was in this place of total despair. Just darkness. I wrote a song a day for a year and put them on Youtube.”
Those songs would become the first drafts of Happiest Man.
Hamell on Trial is the solo project of Ed Hamell, an anti-folk musician who uses his guitar to wring out punk-folk and anything else that strikes his fancy. And what struck his fancy as he worked through his grief was how it can be as temporary as, well, marriage and life.
“I didn’t want the album to be dark because I’d already been in a dark place,” Hamell said. “As I wrote these songs, I realized that I was finding hope and optimism. That’s why I named the album The Happiest Man in the World.”
Hamell is blessed with a voice reminiscent of Van Morrison, and cursed with chronic honesty. Taken together, those ingredients make the album a poignant but rare confessional from a man facing his failures and sadness. Taken independently, those ingredients make the album hilarious in one track and heartbreaking in the next. “Lappa Oo Mau Mau” is a funky, upbeat trip through a narrator’s allegiance to finding pluck regardless of circumstance. The secret? To not care quite so much. It’s all matched by bluesy vocals, butt-bumping bass and dance-worthy keyboards. Hamell even makes use of carefree strings. “Ain’t That Love” is a guitar-backed reflection of a man pushed up to the threshold of a breakup. He sings “I can’t live without you, babe. Don’t you know I’d just as soon die … all the drinking was mad, all the mirrors we smashed, all the cars that we crashed, ain’t that love.” Arresting in its simplicity, the song is a fearless and searching moral inventory of a relationship that has survived an addict’s compulsions, fights that alarm neighbors and sheer boredom. In the thick of regret, our narrator lists sins and bitterness, and ends in the question “ain’t that love.”
The record gives a glimpse into the lives of others — the woman who’s had to return to the strip club to feed her children, the man who is on cloud nine because he got a job. There is even a fun and frank song about a hot mom who needs love to rebound from a mastectomy or amputation. Through it all, Hamell sustains a clear-eyed view of reality, and everyone knows such commitment is bound to leave a mark.
“I knew I wanted to write an album about the new America and the American Dream. The American Dream is still there. People still want a home. They still want to go to a job that’s there for 30 years. The thing of it is, people know that it’s a lot harder to get that,” he said.
Hamell said it was important for the album to be honest — a habit that has cost the artist broader commercial appeal. Swearing, sex and losing one’s religion keep Hamell on Trial from airplay.
“My profile is a lot bigger in Europe, probably because they aren’t quite so puritanical,” he said. “It’s funny, you know? This is my fourth interview, and I just had this conversation with my publicist about how honest I would be about what I’m doing on this album.”
Hamell is a devoted dad to the son who was 8 when Hamell’s marriage ended. Hamell calls his ex-wife “a wonderful person” who has done everything possible to give their son plenty of time with his dad, at home and on the road. But parenthood means a heart has to bleed privately, sometimes.
“You go to any airport in the country, and pick up any book, and you’re going to find sex … crime, language. You see that in any art gallery, but songwriting is really conservative that way. I write how people really talk.”
F-bombs are peppered through the record, as are observations about sex and how a capitalist culture sells it. But Hamell said he doesn’t write about the suicidal thoughts that can dog a grieving man. His own father committed suicide, Hamell said, and there are things you keep under wraps so that your children don’t have to carry your burdens.
Hamell stops in Denton for a show at Dan’s Silverleaf on Tuesday on his way to South By Southwest.
He said the local club stands out for him.
“You know, I’ve played all over the world, and Dan’s is one of my favorite places to play. The club is good, the sound is good and the people are smart. It’s like Ireland, the people love music and they don’t have pretensions,” he said.