Various Artists - Reason to Believe: The Songs of Tim Hardin | Album Review | By Volume

I'm afraid of heaven because I can't stand the height. I'm afraid of you because I can't be left behind. St. Vincent - Regret

Various Artists

Reason to Believe

The special quality of Hardin’s music comes in its ability to be isolating to whoever listens to it.

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Author: on May 11, 2013
Full Time Hobby
Jan 28, 2013

I came to Tim Hardin’s music mystified. It was Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy, eponymous of the lonesome, forgotten musician it chronicled, where we came into contact. I didn’t know it then, but Will Sheff’s rendition of “Black Sheep Boy” was Hardin by the books, repeating one of his fumbling folk songs as if by doing so it would better understand him; it sought to know why he cut himself from everyone else, using a song because surely a song was the best way such rockumentary research could be conducted. That cover is the kind of song that could exist in a museum, examined under the glass and ribbon; its reconstruction wonders how such source material could exist. As Black Sheep Boy progressed it became volatile, mutating Hardin into a metaphor, a transformed figure who only violently expressed certain aspects of his songwriting. It’s on “Black Sheep Boy”, though, a transfixed and very literal cover, that Sheff nailed Hardin’s style best. He did it by simply being him, and it stands as one of the most compassionate covers I’ve ever heard. It’s able to empathise, and so it reaches out, offering a hand to a song that shut itself away.

The songs that appear on Reason to Believe, a tribute collecting covers along the length of Hardin’s career, don’t all restate him, but they do offer compassion like the self-affirming conversation of “Black Sheep Boy”. Okkervil River’s contribution this time around is “It’ll Never Happen Again”, and instead of studying Hardin’s beguiling character, Sheff uses the song as his own retrospective; he notes the choice of song was particular to him as the catalyst of a break-up, mutual but all the more tragic for it. “It’ll Never Happen Again” was written about one of its songwriter’s traditional motifs, and one that certainly gets passed on: Hardin was orating on the death of a romance, but wasn’t able to move on from it emotionally. It’s hard to know whether art has imitated life or vice versa, but Sheff’s tragically accurate experience of the song gives it a second life. His version becomes an artistic remoulding, feeling the song’s generational effect, and it takes over his impulse to write sensitive journalism. Instead he treats Hardin’s emotional processes as his own, letting the mind linger, playing the song as it’s lived. Towards the end of his cover, he breaks free of his miasmic rendition to distort Hardin’s short moment of resistance. “Why can’t you see you’ve got to change to love me?” is one of the most sinister moments in Hardin’s career, and Sheff blinds it with a guitar freak-out, letting the song come back to a less foggy, more inevitable reality in its winding coda. Like Hardin, we get but a glimpse.

Many of these contributions suggest it’s the figure Hardin cast of himself, the ominous loner who couldn’t help but be left alone, that had the most profound influence on modern songwriters. The folk music is a good disguising trick, but his relation of love and loneliness, and his combining philosophy of the two (love is shitty), is inherent. Smoke Fairies modulate “If I Were a Carpenter” into a dark journeyed song, a combination of synth and feedback deliberately misreading Hardin’s original key. It maintains the rhetorical questions, tiptoeing around falling out of love, but disambiguates them, putting the answers in negative space. “Lenny’s Tune”, a sparse and punishing piano ballad that appeared on an early live collection, is obscured by Hannah Peel, who ruminates on its paranoia, allowing for stretches of instrumental dissonance. Where Hardin looked for the reaction of a performance space, Peel seems to internalise the song. Diagrams also perform “Part of the Wind” in a way that removes us from its intimacy, leaving us with nothing but the foreboding culmination of Hardin’s losses.

These covers seek to spotlight the reclusive image Hardin identified with, to put him in the dark even when he’s in the company of others. But to do so brushes over history, forgetting how game he was for gloom and how much sport he saw in making mistakes. Hardin had a habit of extenuating his own songs; he sang about tragedy, but with a modesty that often made him seem playful. His bluesy swagger beat down his self-pitying inclinations, accepting that it might fall on him to make a change. He could be seen as something of a renegade in this light, a blues man with jigs like “Smugglin’ Man”, but the more traditional treatments of his songs on Reason to Believe enhance his sombre musicality, seeking ways to legitimise the tragedies he sung about and make them sincere. The Sand Band’s take on “Reason to Believe” is more filled in around the edges than the original, its country twang placed between certain lyrics to make them resolutely heartbreaking. Mark Lanegan’s performance of “Red Balloon” does a similar job. It’s so closely tied up in its source material, in the same way that Okkervil River made their version of “Black Sheep Boy” a brother to Hardin’s, that it agrees with the tone of the song completely. Lanegan treats Hardin transparently, striking the same full-bodied guitar performance as him and an on point, imitating vocal performance.

These tributes to Hardin signify firm relationships with his music. It would be reductive to consider Reason to Believe as a cursory glance at his music because it collects personal histories rather than stylistic homage; these songs are re-imagined, shown in the wake of having emotional context with his themes of wanting and losing. Reason to Believe may not always connect in the same way that Okkervil River’s rendition of “Black Sheep Boy” did, in that its songs don’t talk back to themselves or try to get closer with where they came from. The special quality of Hardin’s music comes in its ability to be isolating to whoever listens to it, to show that certain stories repeat through history. Hardin may have been the lovesick underdog, but Reason to Believe can show that running through time.

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