The Telegraph described Hickox as “the most powerful and original lyrical songwriter this country has produced in years”
Tom Hickox released his debut album, War, Peace & Diplomacy, in 2014 via Fierce Panda. On hearing the album, The Telegraph described Hickox as “the most powerful and original lyrical songwriter this country has produced in years”, while The Sunday Times hymned his “searingly poignant” way with a melody. If you had seen him at the time, on Later… with Jools Holland, sitting at the piano in his best suit, you might have found it hard to place him in any discernible lineage. You wouldn’t have been alone. Hickox himself momentarily stumbles when asked to do the same. His late father Richard was a celebrated conductor – “but in some senses, he might as well have been an author or a playwright. Neither of my parents pushed me into music”. Nonetheless, having a piano – both in the North London house where Hickox lived up to the age of 13 and in the Edinburgh house he spent with his mother once his parents separated – clearly helped. As far back as he can remember, Hickox’s thoughts meandered into tangents that frequently tormented him. Living near Pentonville Prison triggered a series of nightmares about escaped murderers; the nearby canal was a similar source of recurring dreams.
All of which is worth dwelling upon because it isn’t difficult to draw a connection from these early flights of fancy to the way the adult Tom Hickox likes to go about making music. It’s a facility that emphatically revealed itself on much of War, Peace & Diplomacy – most notably on A Normal Boy, a song which addressed radicalisation by conflating details of his own life with the the events that unfolded around him when he found himself on the tube at the same time as the 7/7 bombings. “We were evacuated from Bank station”, he recalls, “I was on my way to work at Tower Bridge. I was interested in the fact that these guys [responsible for the bombings] were brought up here, so I deliberately used some of myself in that story, because there’s no reason why it couldn’t have been me, actually. It could’ve been anyone”.
Hickox’s fascination with the infinitely complex machinery of the city and our attempts to come to an accommodation with it is also abundant in his new album Monsters In The Deep. Like A Normal Boy, but viewed from the other side of the telescope, The Fanfare sees Hickox juxtaposing “the intensity of our life in big cities against the forces that seek to undermine it: the caliphate in the Middle East. You have two worlds here that are going in two different directions and they’re clashing”. Seemingly a world away from the apocalyptic lyrical slide show of that song, is Perseus and Lampedusa. In 1972, Randy Newman recorded Sail Away, ostensibly a pretty song about escaping to a better world, but actually written from the perspective of an American slave trader, attempting to lure indigenous Africans onto his ship. In Hickox’s song, the key phrase is also “sail away”, and as with the Newman song, anyone clocking little more than the chorus might be forgiven for thinking they’re listening to a pretty piece of escapism. But, of course, in recent years, the Italian Island of Lampedusa has become known as the destination of the most dangerous route for North African migrants fleeing their own war-torn countries. “It’s not a political song,” explains Hickox, and indeed, in his hands, it sounds something more akin, perhaps, to the work of English chansonnier Jake Thackray, “It’s just written from the human perspective of these people risking everything for the distant promise of a beautiful new beginning, but in order to do that, they have to make this hellish crossing”.
This time around, Hickox held back from making the piano the prominent instrument on the album. Together with his life-long friend and co-producer Chris Hill, he played with different ways of presenting the songs, “exploring all sorts of possibilities until the songs told us what to do”. Time and again, it was an approach that seemed to bring out the best in Hickox: the fin de siecle consolation chorus of Collect All The Empties; the keening exhortations of Mannequin Heart which seem to locate an exquisite equidistant point between Tilt-era Scott Walker and a lost David Lynch soundtrack of the same period. A key objective, explains Hickox, was to end up with an album that “you could play for the first time and not have any idea what the next song would sound like on the basis of the one before it”. As a result of these open-ended sessions, The Plough found its natural place away from the piano, its spare acoustic arrangement leaving a sense of space which echoes its protagonist’s awe at their own insignificance beneath the cosmic canopy.
Certainly, it couldn’t be more different to the two songs that sit either side of it: the sybaritic schemer exhorting his companion to come and make a fresh new start in Istanbul; and then, the bright rhythmic rhapsodising of The Dubbing Artist. “I read about this woman in Communist Romania who dubbed all the female lead roles of every single western”, begins Hickox, explaining the genesis of the latter song. “She became a huge celebrity because her voice was on every single film that people were watching, and I found that absolutely fascinating. It’s really a song about obsession. The person in the song is obsessed with her; he sees all her work but he never sees her”.
Both lyrically and musically, the songs on Monsters In The Deep see Hickox stretching out and fully availing himself of the possibilities presented by each song. On Man Of Anatomy, a queasy sense of portent is established by the sound of a Wurlitzer being sent through an old Moog and the opening lyrical shot: “Offering roses as an omen of love…”. The plaintive solemnity of Hickox’s melody here sits wonderfully at odds with the murky minutiae of the interdependent relationship being described: that of an abusive doctor treating an addict. For all of that, Hickox is keen that we don’t get too bogged down in the details. “Every song needs to work on two levels. The story is what’s on the surface, but the bit that connects is hopefully what underpins the story. Korean Girl In A Waiting Room, for instance, is really a song about homesickness: she was flat on her back, passed out, and I just imagined her waking up surrounded by doctors a million miles from home, and she doesn’t speak English”.
Herein lies the paradox that awaits you at every turn on this extraordinary album. For someone who clearly enjoys observing the never-ending human drama unfolding around him, Tom Hickox manages to reveal an awful lot of himself in that process. “We’re all trying to get through the day”, explains this most genial of artists, “and sometimes the odds seem insurmountable. But I’m a great believer in the human spirit. That’s why I love cities. That’s why I love *this* city. The bright lights entice you in and tell you that you can start over, not just once, but every day. That’s priceless for someone like me. It means that every day, I want to write. How could you not?”