When a new album arrives from an artist that you’ve basically fallen in love with, there’s a huge tension and anticipation at work. Will it not just match what’s come before, but improve on it? Or will it break the spell that’s fed your obsession up to this point? That’s how I felt about ‘Hunter’ arriving after the years-long break since ‘One Breath’. Barring an EP of cover versions and a moment when Calvi seemed to be involved with the fashion industry more than music, I was nervous about what would fill that silence.
Hype is a dodgy little drug, to be consumed with great care. The first interviews set out Calvi’s stall: the album was a statement about freedom of gender and sexuality. That was a message I could get behind: in fact one that chimes with me intensely. However, rightly or wrongly, I harbour instinctive scepticism about musicians who were not previously outspoken discovering politics. If you’re Sleaford Mods, it’s there in the musical DNA from the outset. Before Hunter’s release, I worried about how the message Calvi had decided to convey would sit with her music. Out of context from the rest of the album, ‘Don’t Beat The Girl Out of My Boy’ sounded a bit on the nose. In addition I needed a few listens to adapt to what sounded at first like Eighties production bombast – the crashing drums, the stadium-sized vocal reverb.
However, another bigger however: when I listened to the entire album properly, it’s clear Calvi’s voice is still present, and even more commanding than before. Her ‘statement’ runs through her voice and guitar like her blood.
That said, the first track ‘As A Man’ doesn’t quite convince: it’s musically low-key, almost as if it’s meant to bridge other, bigger tunes later in the album. “Don’t Beat The Boy…” is the obvious choice of opener, but maybe that’s the point. This album is deftly sequenced, building steadily and with implicit confidence. Once title track ‘Hunter’ gently but firmly pulls you close, it’s clear ‘As A Man’ serves as an overture to the whole. From that point on we’re led through a musical progression with no excuse to step away.
Beginning with a series of cinematic images of Calvi finding power in adorning herself before heading out on the prowl, ‘Hunter’ surges and sighs like a lost Bond theme. In fact, several tracks seem to be waving a calling card at Barbara Broccoli, murmuring “Call me, forget that ‘relevant’ Stormzy/Dua Lipa duet you were banking on”. Ending like waves rolling onto a Nassau beach, it allows ‘Don’t Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy’ to strut out of the surf toward its rightful place in the scheme of things. The first anthem – that word used without qualification or irony – of the album, cheerfully it storms the ramparts, fluttering standard aloft, in aid of Joy As An Act Of Resistance (thanks, Idles). This is a song for just after the sexual/gender revolution, the border checkpoints open, Calvi hurling vocal rather than guitar fireworks into the night sky. ‘Indies Or Paradise’ absorbs the previous song’s afterglow, using it as fuel to alternately chug through the jungle or soar stratospherically above swooning crowds, with just one star-shell of caterwauling fret-botherage.
With a sound looser and and more expansive than before, still there’s no bluster or hollow, unearned bombast. Clocking in at just over forty three minutes, ‘Hunter’ fits neatly on the sides of a vinyl album and doesn’t outstay its welcome. Calvi and her fellow players haven’t lost any of their capacity for slow-burning tension and whip-tight theatrical dynamics. The lyrics are pared down, staying out of the way of the music, allowing Calvi’s voice room to mediate them into another instrument in service of the song. The lyrics are the script, the music the director allowing Calvi to find her light and come right down the lens at you.
To these ears at least, as with previous albums, ‘Hunter’ draws inspiration from then blows kisses back at the ghostly reverb and valve-state twang of John Barry, Ennio Morricone and Angelo Badalamenti. Other influences/loves on show are the late Black Star himself – is that a cheeky little reference when ‘Chain’ is pronounced ‘Ch-ch-chain!’ – and ‘Wish’ features high-pitched breathy gasps straight off Suicide’s ‘Ghost Rider’.
Sometimes it’s the imperfections of a voice that makes it distinctive. At the same time, there’s a place for a technique and discipline. Hitting a note exactly can pierce the listener’s heart: Calvi’s clarity and power first overwhelm then boost you skywards, or slay and disintegrate with a trailing, wounding sigh. She clearly loves the physical act of singing and is determined to use that faculty to make you feel whatever she’s feeling. Possessed of an enviable vocal range, here she never sounds like she’s straining. Perhaps one reason is that there’s less resort to the ultra-deep, rather theatrical bass tone from the first two albums. Like an actor using an accent different to their own, it’s twice as much work, maintaining the voice whilst giving a performance on top of it. Maybe not having to dig for those notes allows her even greater precision and emotional clarity.
‘Hunter’ gives voice to visceral, beautiful dreams and wishes for physical and emotional liberty. It’s rare for an album to capture my attention so completely from the first listen. I’m really looking forward to hearing these songs ‘in the flesh’, in a couple of weeks time. Here’s hoping the wait for Calvi’s next work won’t be quite so long.