Review: Darren Hayes’s Secret Codes and Battleships

By Dominick Montalto on November 15, 2011

Darren Hayes’s brand-new album, Secret Codes & Battleships, was released worldwide three weeks ago. I purchased the special two-disc edition, which includes five extra tracks and live versions of two album tracks, “Talk Talk Talk” and “Black Out The Sun.” There are three things that crossed my mind when perusing the album booklet: the lack of punctuation in the tracks’ lyrics; a design preoccupied with bright colors, fantastic imagery, and geometric shapes; and a theme centered on the sea. There are also several photographs of Hayes on the beach, of which one shows him drawing a heart in the sand. The theme of the sea carries over to the first and last songs on the album, “Taken by the Sea” and “The Siren’s Call,” respectively. The album title is taken from a verse in the second track, “Don’t Give Up.”

The album’s overarching theme is the intensity of love and the complexity of relationships; the beauty and the sorrow of love and losing it; and the fragility of the lover whose heart falls in love, wades through the battlefield of love, and then faces life without it, scarred but still somehow hopeful. There are two things about the overall nature of the album that struck me: an absence of dance tracks about dancing and music (think “Spin”) and a completely experimental, artistic sound. There’s a reason why Hayes has waited four years to release this, his fourth solo album, and that’s because he wanted to give his audience a new sound, a different voice, and lyrics that are so spare and simple in their poetry that they strike a chord hidden so deep that I had all but forgotten was even there.

“Taken by the Sea” starts off the album with a musical and vocal passion that anchors the listener and plunges them into the depths of the album’s variations on the theme of love. Beginning with the sounds of a child’s mobile above their cradle to put them to sleep, it moves into a sound that foregrounds the redemptive power of love embodied by the sea. “Taken by the Sea” is about letting go without fear of not always being good or strong enough to handle life’s struggle, and hoping that in letting go there will be someone, that great love, who will be there to rescue you from drowning in that feeling of inadequacy or like you won’t survive your worst problems. For Hayes, he is the lone island surrounded by a vast sea that is the lover he desires to take away all of his unhappiness, sorrow, and fear:

Because I am an island
And you are the ocean
And all of my sadness taken by the sea

In this last verse, the song expresses the symbolism of water and the sea as the cleanser of all stains, all weakness. The song’s last verses “And I want so much to believe that I won’t disappear in the water / That I won’t always be swimming against the tide” show the singer’s most human side in yet expressing the nagging, insistent doubt and fear we all face in life though he has experienced the blindness of the face and embrace of love, the miracle of the hope he so desires. It seems so natural to human nature, even when visited by the angel of love, that when we look in the mirror we always fill it with doubt in ourselves, no matter who we have supporting us on the outside.

“Don’t Give Up” tells the story of a relationship on the rocks, and the singer wants to do whatever he can to save his relationship, telling his lover

And I want to run away from this
But I’d never leave a sinking ship . . .
Without you in it there’s no point to our story

And that, along with the most striking line in the song, “And Love surrenders to win the war,” is what the song is all about: Love is not about the self, but about the other person, and that person is the whole story; they are what make love’s heart beat. Love, in a word, is self-sacrifice, and to win the war, the singer knows he has to put himself second, which is how love that thinks with the heart rather than the mind surrenders, showing that his love is stronger than his ego by putting his lover’s needs and desires before his own. Love surrenders and shows itself triumphant by loving the other so much to let them go, if that is how it must be, although the singer clearly doesn’t want his lover to “ever let [him] go”.

“Nearly Love” finds the singer confessing that he doesn’t love his beloved as much as he used to, and no longer feels the intensity of the former passion he once felt for them. It’s a story of a love grown cold, and knowing this, the singer wants his lover to understand that this “nearly love” isn’t the love he used to feel, and now his “heart’s in a mess because [his] nearly love is not real / enough / to be the one”. He doesn’t want to hurt his lover, but his heart’s just not in this love the way it once was and has become “a lonesome ghost”. He may not want to end it, but he knows his lover isn’t the one, as they were in the past.

“Black Out the Sun,” my favorite track on the album, explores the despair left behind when a relationship ends, and how this ending has left the singer empty, without feeling:

There’s no joy there’s no meaning
Just this hollowed out feeling . . .
There’s a hole where my soul used to grow . . .

There’s an emptiness inside of me since you’ve been gone
All the world has lost its meaning all my colors run

The singer wants all the beautiful, life-giving aspects of Nature to be blacked out and shut off because he can’t bear to see these things in a world without his lover, because they express life and joy, which he no longer knows, “switch off the stars / and paint the sky black / love isn’t ever coming back . . . turn all the fruit into bitter wine / it was only sweet when you were mine”. This love was so strong, this relationship meant so much, and now loneliness fills the void where love once lived and the singer’s whole view of the world has been turned inside out. Here Hayes’s voice, just as with “Taken By the Sea,” takes you and fills you with the passion that he expresses with his relentlessly impressive vocal range.

“Talk Talk Talk,” the most danceable track on the album, finds the singer wanting to really have a heart-to-heart with his lover, in the hope that this will truly prevent their relationship from ending. But all he finds is his lover keeping silent while the unspoken words fight each other in his lover’s head. Hayes pierces the heart of the matter when he sings “Sometimes all the matters of the heart / Are the chaos and the cowardice that keep us apart”. When lovers don’t feel like they’re being treated right or being loved enough instead of expressing this, they shut down, causing a rift in the relationship, which is never good. What we keep to ourselves drives us away from the relationship we seem to cherish, and there comes a point when talking isn’t enough, but we should just be honest from the start and never let it get that far.

“Bloodstained Heart” is reminiscent of “Crash and Burn” (Affirmation 1999) but where that song was a call to be there for someone in friendship, this track is about being there, through thick and thin, for the one you love. For the singer, this love has “hit [him] like a subway train / and [he’ll] never be the same,” and the virtue of love comes through when he sings

Even when you fall apart
I’ll pick up your bloodstained heart
And darlin’ I’ll follow you down to the ground

For the singer, no matter what his lover is going through, he’ll be there for them, even when their heart is broken, when all the others have left their side, and all their dreams have died. The singer will be the beacon of hope in the darkness of his lover’s worst nights.

“God Walking into the Room” tells of the singer’s undying, unshakeable love for the lover he is no longer with. He prays that his “faith in love will survive” while all his friends tell him to find someone new, but they don’t understand how strong a power this lover is in his life, “they don’t understand the gravity I’ve fallen into”. This lover brings the singer all the love he needs, and when he kisses him and sees him “it’s like God walking into the room”. The song is a way for him to confess; he is so deeply struck by this lover, and so hurt by the loss of them that he is lighting candles and praying “for a love resurrection and all the things [they] lost in the fire”. The separation is felt so deeply that the song opens with the sparest of poetic beauty: You and I / We got splintered / Cut in two like earth and the sky” and ends with “the sky” being replaced by “the sea” and another prayer that his faith in love will bring his lover back to him.

“Hurt” presents a very different vantage point in which the singer is no good for the person who loves him and he very well knows it, and the song is about how he would hurt his lover if they “don’t put [him] back on the shelf” and find somebody, anybody, who would apparently be better. But for all the ease of confession to being a destructive type, it seems to vainly hide that the singer himself may have been hurt in the past and that this is who he has become because of his own experience with the pain and loss of love.

“Roses,” the saddest song on the album, asks what would you do if you knew the world was going to end tomorrow. The singer says he would confess to having regrets and only want to spend the last day with the person he still loves whom he left. It’s a song about death and the death of relationships that we stupidly, selfishly inflict and then regret (or at least should regret) because “You only get one life to make it right / You can’t smell the roses when you’re gone / So live every moment like it’s the last night on earth.” It’s a song about changing your life before you miss out on the chance to do so, making amends, keeping promises, and fulfilling dreams and desires, yours as well as others’.

“Stupid Mistake” is about exactly that—the singer claims he made a stupid mistake that caused him to lose everything, including vocation and his lover:

I made a stupid mistake and my world crashed down all around me
I made a stupid mistake and threw it all away . . .
I got lazy on the wrong side of love
Now I’m searching every face in the crowd for you

The question naturally becomes “what was this stupid mistake?” For the singer, the question is “how did he do this, how did he let this happen?” All he knows is that he is lost, and that he gave up everything he had, all the good, to start a war with his lover, but we don’t know what that war was about and why he doesn’t want to pray or want forgiveness for what he has done. The singer portrays himself as someone who no longer wants to try to figure things out and make things better, but yet he is wandering around wondering how he let this happen, searching for the one he lost though he claims right from the start “I don’t want love and I don’t want anybody else anybody else to either”. Since all the beauty of love has ended for him, he doesn’t want it at all anymore or for anyone else to have it either. “Stupid Mistake” may be cryptic in its way but it shows how we give up on love so easily because we can’t sacrifice our egos and we walk around lazy, lost, and blind to the fact that we, and often not our lover, are the culprits in letting love fail us and our relationships fall apart.

“Cruel Cruel World” seems a rewrite of sorts of “The Only One” (This Delicate Thing We’ve Made 2007) and has the singer singing that his lover is the only one who has stuck by him while everyone else has left him, and that his lover is “the only one who gets through” and that when he’s feeling cold and beaten in this cruel, cruel world, his lover is the only one he lets in, who understands him, and the only one he wants to “crawl back home to” when he feels all hope and kindness in the world is gone.

(Ulysses [Odysseus] and the Sirens by John William Waterhouse [1891] appears before the lyrics to “The Siren’s Call” in the album booklet of Secret Codes and Battleships)

“The Siren’s Call” is a haunting finish to the album. The title refers to the bird-women of Greco-Roman mythology whose song seduces sailors and causes them to be shipwrecked on their island where they prey upon them. Hayes’s song begins with the singer’s personalizing the experience of Odysseus who told his men to tie him to the mast of his ship while they stopped their ears with wax. And so Hayes sings:

Tie me up against the mast and shield the sunlight from my eyes
For I no longer can resist the haunting of her cries
They call me from the jagged rock
It was the sweetest melody
Like gold and honey dripping from the fingertips of God

Yet, despite this falling for the sultry song of the sirens, Hayes “can almost taste happiness   . . . / Above the siren’s call,” and that happiness is the hope of love. He claims that love “is not beautiful or pure / But it exists beyond the shore / It struggles to be heard above the screeching of her call” as demons clamor to drag him down and prevent him from coming home to the embrace of love. The song ends with the singer knowing love exists, and that if he wants it he must pursue it and not let the seductive sirens or the loud, restless demons of doubt and fear within stop him from finding that love he has glimpsed from afar.

With his new album Hayes has once again proven himself a man of passion and absolute honesty; he is a man of sensitivity and intense feeling that he puts into every word and every sound of his music. What makes Hayes and his music so unique is that his lyrics are just as real, just as human, as the voice that sings them, which makes you realize his music is about him letting his audience know that he feels or has felt just like they do when it comes to love and the fragile nature of relationships and the human heart and spirit. His passion permeates his music, his lyrics, and his trademark voice, and what stays with his listeners is this sincerity, and this alone is what makes Secrets Codes and Battleships a work of art and the man behind it a beautiful human being.

Buy Secret Codes & Battleships from Amazon.