Honesty is the Best Policy: The Voice of Darren HayesBy Dominick Montalto on June 20, 2011
Ever since his early days as the lead singer of the late-90s musical group Savage Garden, international superstar Darren Hayes’ voice has continuously been dynamic, seductive, and genuine. Though his music with Savage Garden and his first solo album, Spin, catered to a pop sound that would garner him legions of fans across the globe, infusing the songs with his own personal story often took a backseat to producing music that would sell, sell, sell. For some record companies it’s all about the sound and playing upon the heart, “give us a beat we can hit the floor with and give us a ballad that will make us swoon or cry.” This is not to say that Affirmation and Spin, in particular, do not have their fair share of Hayes’ personal life embedded in their songs, but in these albums and most of their selections his voice is not as steadfast, fearless, and as human as it becomes in his next two solo works, The Tension and the Spark and his two-disc masterpiece, the first produced under his own recording label, Powdered Sugar, This Delicate Thing We’ve Made. It not only seems but is also a fact that when in complete creative control of his work, Darren Hayes brings absolute, unflinching artistic integrity to the development and production of his music. It is the music of these latter two albums in particular which this article will focus on.
For those insatiable fans of Hayes’ music, his personal story is well known and understood as the impetus behind most of the music he has created since his days in Savage Garden. What has always been so deeply affecting, and increasingly so in Tension and Delicate, is the strength of his voice not just in its range but also, and most shatteringly, is the honesty that bleeds from his voice. This writer has only encountered two, maybe three, other vocalists whose voices exude the honesty of the songs that they perform on their albums and live in concert, and yet it is Hayes whose voice trumps them all because his music is his life and no other. Hayes produces music that opens up his heart and personality to his listeners and which honestly shares the thoughts and emotions that breathe in the depths of his soul.
With The Tension and the Spark Hayes broke the dam that had kept him from a direct and personal relationship with his fans. “Darkness” is a powerful experience with which he opens the album, relating to us that he has hidden himself away from the world, has kept himself from truly living, because of the varied personal issues, both inner demons and external circumstances, that have stifled his own creative talent and prevented a full disclosure of his true self to his audience. It is with the immediacy of the angst and self-revelations with which he sings at the start of the album that floods listeners with empathy and sympathy for the man, making him completely human, while drawing them in to revel in the unique sounds of his music. It is also with this album that Hayes begins to be forthright with his fans about his sexuality, telling us in “I Like The Way”, “I am consumed by the flesh haunting me / I know temptation taunts the empty”, laying claim to the paradoxical nature of desire as a pleasurable destruction of the true self, while his listeners cannot help but rip up the dance floor because the beat is driven to the madness of the desire of which he sings. In the thrilling beat of “Love and Attraction” he sings, “I want her, she wants him, he wants me, I give in / I want her, I want him, I don’t want anything / I started questioning the rules of coupling”, showing us that sex and passion cannot always be separated from love and intimacy nor can they be easily divided in the context of black and white, the shades of gray are where one man’s desires can be for both another man as well as a woman. In “Dublin Sky”, a ballad that would make all other ballads in the history of song despair, he brings his most sensitive and emotional listeners to tears with the story of a relationship that has fallen apart and left him longing, hoping in time he will be able to move on. In “Unlovable” he questions a lover, “Are my lips unkissable? / Are my eyes unlookable? / Is my skin untouchable? / Am I unlovable?” ultimately evoking the feeling that this lover has made him feel as if he was the most undesirable person that ever lived, and like his father and mother never loved him. In “Void” he grieves over the loss of a lover for which no other lover, whether a stranger or a friend, could fill the void, and bring him a little piece of happiness again. With the song “I Forgive You” he does just that, to a lover who has made him feel so low but in the act of letting go, he realizes the freedom in no longer holding on to a past and a relationship that was destructive. Lastly, in “Sense of Humor”, Hayes takes matters into his own hands and stops at nothing to seduce his listeners with lyrics such as “You will find my scent attractive / You will like my real engaging eyes / And playful childlike smile / You will find my style appealing” and a voice so sexy, so erotic, no listener can possibly sit still.
The symphony of sounds that is This Delicate Thing We’ve Made is a breathtaking work of sincerity and beauty. With a twenty-five-song playlist, we must confine ourselves to an examination of the songs in which Hayes’ voice is once again so brutally honest, so irrepressibly human, that it leaves an indelible mark on the heart and mind of his listeners. This album is a work of personal stories; moving from the wonders and fears of loving and being loved, to looking back in time as well as to the future with a Janus-like face, from speaking to God and opening up about his troubled childhood to music driven to make you sing and dance, all while reflecting his imagination well-read in Victorian literature.
In “Who Would Have Thought?” Hayes confronts the issue of love and a broken heart, love without a lover to give one’s heart to, and the idea of how love so late in life can bring one home not only to oneself but also to the object of that love, “Who would have thought it could be amazing? / . . . / Who would have thought that love so belated could save me? / And bring me back to you?” The stress of the song is that we are not alone in the tragedy of love and in its salvation, for he has experienced these all too often himself. “How to Build a Time Machine” is, like a number of songs on this album, about his own history, and like all good history, it must be reflected in a work of art to make it immortal, because Time itself cannot be turned back, and we cannot build a real time machine. The only time machine we have is our memories, and for Hayes, what is revealed in the song is his own facing down of his childhood issues and the enlightening moment that it is better not to return to the past because the paths we have traveled, no matter how strewn with thorns or roses, have made us who we are in the moment we live now. What makes these songs so powerful are not the words, not even at times the music, but rather the sentiment of the song and the passion with which he expresses the emotion he infuses his life’s work with. You cannot escape a listening of “Time Machine” and “Casey” in particular without a flood of tears. “Casey” is about his teenage desire to be free of the normalcy of life, wanting to be someone, believing that in being someone the past will be changed and no longer cast doubt or pain on who we are as individuals. It is a song about the deepest friendship, wherein in one person he found a symbiotic relationship that he didn’t want to lose when Casey left him behind. It is, like so much of his work, and why so many people can relate to him and his music, a song of longing; it makes him human, and it makes us love him in that humanness.
Yet, there is no song like the most exquisitely done piece on the album—”Step into the Light”. A song that literally chills and freezes, grips this writer’s soul and body in its magnificent orchestration and in its even greater release and liberation in the numbing bridge. An out and out song about love and being in love, it is about the fear we face when we find love. It is about learning how to let go of our burns and bruises, about becoming sacred because love makes us “sacred” in our humanity. “I have turned away from you and I am Godless. / A wasteland of poison. A hidden fortress. / . . . I have murdered the divine in me. Set the Godness free.” It is about the self forsaking the soul and being broken, full of emptiness and fear, afraid to “step into the light” and freedom of love. “Sing to Me” is a song of love lost, of the other letting go, disappearing, and the singer learning how to set this love, this relationship free. He thinks that maybe it is meant to be or maybe they are in a crisis and are “just lost at sea”, and that if this is truly what his beloved wants, “if this is what you need pry my fingers from your hand”. Simply put, “A Conversation With God” is about confronting the self in the face of God, in his presence and in his absence, about letting go and letting God do all the work, though the ego is ceaselessly all about control.
“The Only One” is about finding that “only one” who allows you to feel your pain and your passion and accepts you for that human nature, for all the good and all the bad. That acceptance is love, and that is the true “sun always blinding [you] with her light”. “I’ve got such a jealous side / Reaching out I try to hide my infant stride / And in my mind this is all so prototype / I make it wrong to make it feel right, you don’t deny it.” “The Only One” is about that love that is the true salvation of the soul, the one that redeems us in all our ugliness and makes us feel beautiful, makes us accept our own self, our own humanity. “The Future Holds A Lion’s Heart” is again about Hayes accepting his strength, his homosexuality, and the love that goes along with these personal characteristics. In opposing “Time Machine”, it is a song that deals directly with the future, the future in which he realizes that he is more than his lost youth and the beauty that supposedly only attends our youth. It tells us that in maturity we can be and are more beautiful than when we were young. It is a story of facing the self in the mirror, the other person who is not only literally another person, but also our self, and it too is the other that we must accept as our true self. The song, like the whole album, is like a puzzle the pieces of which we must find wherever they may be, accept them for what they contain and put them together to create the whole picture that is a complete self, not a fragment.
Much of the album, as well as parts of Tension, concerns itself with Hayes’ past, his present acceptance of that past, a past filled with a troubled youth and childhood, not only in terms of relations with family but also friends, and of his present relationship with his husband and a glimpse of a happy future, knowing he has made peace with himself in the best ways he possibly could, and this is a testament not only to his marriage but to his own strength, and this strength comes through in a sincere beauty of lyric, melody, and voice, a voice haunted with passion and enveloped in honesty.