Albert Hammond Jr. (c) [PIAS] Germany
There is one specific moment that has shaped my first impression of Albert Hammond jr. as the rhythm guitarist of the Strokes. During one of their first appearences on Letterman (check it out here, starting from 0.22 ), Nick Valensi had just rattled down the first intro chords of “Take It Or Leave It“, and except for Julian, all band members still stood there with their backs to the camera. Then, there was a change of perspective, showing Albert Hammond jr.s front, still facing the drums and waiting to begin main lick of the song, with an almost childlike, anticipatory expression on his face. When it’s his turn, it‘s almost like lightening strikes him, he turns around with a twist of his hips and feet, and starts playing and dancing along, almost lost in the sound, effortless, very cool. He almost resembles a marionette of the sound he is creating himself, an impression of naive openness and kindness, but also introversion. And obviously, not to forget: The hair. The Eyes. The Suits. All in all an appearance way more inviting than the frustrated, lethargic vampire on Benzodiazepines, as which Casablancas sometimes appears.
As it was extensively reported, Hammond jr. is a recovering alcoholic, in the sense that every person who once had a serious problem with drinking will be a recovering alcoholic for his whole life, no matter how much time has passed since the last drink. Hammond must be aware of the fact that there are a few lines on Momentary Masters, his third solo record, that will be perceived in reference to that (but if you’re pleasantly drunk you can’t hear a sound in “Power Hungry”, or the whole controlled abuse chorus in “Razors Edge”), but you’d do wrong to read these isolated lines as confessional statements. They rather contribute to the bigger lyrical context of the album, that aims at including, integrating the dark facets of character into a whole picture that is mainly characterized by acceptance.
In everything about this record (press campaign, artwork, lyrics), there is a multitude of references about coming to terms with formerly disliked, repressed, threatening aspects of one’s personality. On his instagram page, Hammond jr. quotes russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn,saying: „The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?“. The whole cover design plays with these aspects of repression, of the search for an integrated self-image, to build something from the stripes and the black-and-white contradiction into something more complete, integrative, and therefore probably more realistic. It’s no coincidence but a conscious move to provoke associations with psychoanalyst C.G. Jung’s concept of the „shadow“ of one’s personality.
Momentary Masters (c) [PIAS] Germany
The little short stories in his lyrics depict these conflicts more practically then all these theory might imply. When he finds himself left in his apartment after the ex has left, asking is the moment gone? (…) all the things we said, taking back yesterday? (“Born Slippy”). There are various scenes of parties and/or high society lifestyle where the protagonist finds himself confused, lost, out of place or simply disgusted by what he sees of the shadows of others and himself (“Power Hungry”). Allusions to leading a life in material abundance and wondering about still feeling a need so unsatisfied, that it’s just not enough. (have you been in a house so big, where some rooms don’t exist? from “Caught By My Shadow”). And always the tension between knowing that your decisions aren’t the best, but feeling the attraction and the need, seeing it in other people as well, but not being able to save them, either (“Losing Touch”, “Razors Edge”, “Drunched in Crumbs”). The placement of his version of Dylan‘s “Don’t Think Twice” right in the middle, the heart of his record, is a statement of self-impowerment: I can do all of this negative crap. As long as I can get out of it again and accept that and why it happened.
Nevertheless, these stories and hints are crafted into the record in a very unobstrusive way, so that Hammond Jr. still leaves it up to the listener whether (s)he wants to get involved with this personal stuff or not. Apart from that, you can still get a professionally recorded hi-fi and fun hype rock record, showing a lot Hammonds trademarks and signature sounds of his day job band, making it the probably most strokes-y record for a long time (including Casablancas project with The Voidz). This is new, as his previous brand of lo-fi pop almost seemed to intentionally bury the hushed, washy vocals below the lush singer-songwriter hippie arrangements and therefore set explicit boundaries to the comparison with the Strokes. In contrast, Momentary Masters dares more to rave musically, even if it sometimes is comparable to the Strokes, resulting in, contradictionally, a record that feels a lot more like a statement of independence, exactly because it doesn’t categorically try to avoid something.
Albert Hammond jr. (c) [PIAS] Germany
You will find them all here, the famous ingrediences: The lead guitar lines that parallel the vocal melody. The geometrical guitar lines, rather referencing cold simplicit structures of modern architecture or the form of skinny jeans than a howling feedback rock’n’roll guitars. The melodies and zigzaging riffs, so rich on staccato-played notes spiraling upwards that one could almost get dizzy following them winding their way through the otherwise solid and almost static instrumentation. New are his experiments with his singing style: There is the distanced spoken word part, there is the falsetto that sometimes reminds me either of Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig or Take That’s Mark Owen, there are various sound and editing effects, but not anymore with the intention to hide the voice, but to vary the pronunciation.
There is a very charming video interview on Youtube (min: 6:54) of Hammond jr. talking very modestly about his guitar skills, and at one point, as the interviewer asks him about any recommendations for people who just picked up a guitar, he compares himself with other players he knows and replies that his specialty is not the left hand who’s playing the strings, but the right, strumming or picking hand:
“They just can’t keep it (the strum) steady. Almost the reason why i even fit in the band was that I could even just play straight. There were some people who could do solos that i couldn’t do, but they just couldn’t play straight on a chord.”
By not hiding his shadow, by accepting and integrating: Albert Hammond Jr. is ready, willing and able to strum. Steadily.
Tl; dnr: Albert Hammond jr.s third solo effort is musicially the closest to his dayjob as the rhythm guitarist of The Strokes. Lyrically, he deals with philosophical and psychological allusions to accepting darker shades of ones personality and relationship storylines in the context of a certain lifestyle.