Secret Codes and Battleships
47:31 min • EMI Records (UK) • October 24, 2011
In the summer of 2010 Polari Magazine was invited to a recording studio in Chiswick, London, to an exclusive first play of Darren Hayes fourth solo studio album, which Hayes revealed at the time was to be titled Secret Codes and Battleships. I remember thinking at the time how wholly appropriate this was with the recurring motifs of islands, seas and ships surfacing lyrically throughout the tracks.
This Delicate Thing We’ve Made, the album’s predecessor, had been an incredibly personal album, not only in an introspective sense, with some startlingly revealing lyrics; but without a record label attached it was mammoth project of self publishing, distribution and promotion. The pitfalls of not having a record deal became prevalent as the album struggled to get airplay or indeed the attention it deserved; but the silver-lining meant Hayes had the luxury of total control, which he then seized, exploring a wide variety of musical influences which left a very distinct mark on his magnum opus.
The overwhelming first impression of Secret Codes and Battleships was how much of Hayes’ own musical identity had been stamped on this album, which is undoubtedly why slews of work-shy music journalists have been calling the album a return to form. Whilst positive, this is nevertheless a back-handed compliment. In reality the album is far greater than this lacklustre generalization.
Secret Codes and Battleships is a pop paean to the love song. Even at its most abstract, on the almost existential ‘Roses’ with a carpe diem philosophy at its core, the listener is reminded of what is at the heart here:
If I could have my time again,
I would make sure, you knew just how I felt.
Lyrically, the songs are painted with broader thematic brushstrokes than the last album, which examined the personal in microcosm. Here the personal is translated as a macrocosm, giving the songs a universal appeal. The masterful production serves to elevate this premise.
Vocally, Hayes is one of the strongest pop singers of his generation, and the vocals are pushed to the forefront soaring above a complex and rich production of strings, electronica and instrumentation. The clarity of each and every word is unmistakeable, and refreshingly so, since it’s key to the emotional connection Hayes makes with his audience, who combines strong lyrics with unforgettable melodies.
And this is an album of relentlessly beautiful melodies. It is of no surprise that within days of the first airplay of ‘Bloodstained Heart’, dozens of young musicians were uploading their interpretations of the song on YouTube, a testament to the strength of the song, which fuses a haunting melody with equally poignant lyrics:
You hit me like a subway train,
And I will never be the same.
And darling I’ll follow you down to the ground…
There are many highlights on this album. The trilogy of singles, of which ‘Bloodstained Heart’ is one, is particularly strong. ‘Talk Talk Talk’ the album’s debut single, has all the hallmarks of a monster anthemic Kylie summer hit; her ‘people’ really should be looking to engage Hayes’ services. ‘Hurt’, another massive pop song, literally crowd surfs its way across a sea of strings that crash in and out effortlessly. It is this track and ‘Don’t Give Up’ that most recall Hayes’ Savage Garden days, the memory of which has been resurrected with the release of this album.
Despite these nods to the past, however, it is an altogether contemporary and relevant piece of work that explores various aspects of its theme. It’s not just about love and what it means to be in love, but also those things that test its strength and sometimes breaks it down.
As an artist, I often think in visual terms, and I remember that when I first heard Secret Codes and Battleships I had imagined a ship (the HMS Love?) plowing through stormy seas being assailed by enemy craft. This is an album about love under siege and it comes out fighting with all guns blazing. Drawing from an arsenal of memorable melodies that are deceptively complex, Secret Codes and Battleships is a perfect pop album which should put Hayes back above the cultural radar which he has been flying below for far too long.
Secret Codes and Battleships is released today and is available from iTunes and all good record stores.