Monsters In The Deep sees Hickox stretching out and fully availing himself of the possibilities presented by each song. 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. Time and again, it is an approach that brings out the best in Hickox: the fin de siecle consolation chorus of Collect All The Empties; the keening exhortations of Mannequin Heart.
A key objective was to create 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.
Hickox’s fascination with the infinitely complex machinery of the city and our attempts to come to an accommodation with it is also abundant throughout the album – The Fanfare is an apocalyptic two-and-a-half minute exploration of that and of global tensions. And seemingly a world away from the 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.
Each song on the album is multi-layered. The story is what’s on the surface, but the bit that connects is what underpins the story. Korean Girl In A Waiting Room is really a song about homesickness, written after Hickox witnessed the girl passed out and 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.
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