Over the past 23 years, Neil Halstead has earned an ardent following by making intensely atmospheric music with a near-hypnotic power. Hailed by AllMusic as “one of Britain’s most respected songwriters,” the singer/guitarist served as frontman and primary songwriter for Slowdive (the legendary shoegaze outfit whose seminal studio albums include 1993’s Souvlaki, co-produced by Brian Eno). After its 1995 breakup, Slowdive morphed into the Halstead-helmed Mojave 3 and released a string of highly celebrated records that merged jangly alt-country with dusky dream-pop. In 2006 Mojave 3 went on indefinite hiatus, prompting Halstead to embark on an acoustic-driven solo career marked by British-folk-inspired melody and ethereal nylon-string strumming.
The follow-up to his acclaimed sophomore solo effort Oh! Mighty Engine, Palindrome Hunches finds the Cornwall, England-based Halstead continuing to craft moody and endlessly mesmerizing folk-infused songs. This time around, Halstead teamed up with producer Nick Holton and members of Wallingford’s Band of Hope (including Ben Smith on violin, Drew Milloy on double bass, Paul Whitty on piano, and Tom Crook on guitar) to achieve a sound that’s both remarkably rich and piercingly intimate. Rounded out by Holton and Aimee Craddok on backup vocals (as well as banjo player Kevin Wells on two tracks), Palindrome Hunches bears an uncommon warmth that Halstead partly attributes to its recording’s setting and strategy.
“At first we were going to record in a studio but everything seemed too clean—there’s something about proper facilities that’s a wee bit sterile,” says Halstead. Instead, he and his fellow musicians spent a weekend holed up in the music room at the Fir Tree primary School (a Wallingford school attended by Holton’s children). “We just went through the songs and recorded them live without very much rehearsal,” says Halstead. “We wanted to be spontaneous and simple and to keep the little mistakes that sneaked in.” Noting the playfulness of recording in such an unconventional space (“a proper music room with lots of little drums and glockenspiels and triangles everywhere”), Halstead points out that “the hardest thing really was to resist putting on a glockenspiel on every track.”
But while Palindrome Hunches certainly has its moments of whimsy, many of the songs are steeped in a mood that’s sometimes strikingly dark. The quietly epic “Wittgenstein’s Arm,” for instance, tells the true story of Paul Wittgenstein (an Austrian pianist who had his right arm amputated in World War I and lost three of his brothers to suicide). Backed by a sorrowful violin, Halstead’s luminous voice delivers heartaching lyrics like “Death runs deep in this family/Write a song for the left hand only/I lost my arm in the first great war/Wish I never learned that piano before.” Another standout track, “Tied To You” creates a sweeping and cinematic sense of impending tragedy with its tremulous piano and urgent guitar. And on songs like “Spin the Bottle” and “Sandy,” Halstead twists tender, near-tearful harmonies into rueful ballads of love lost.
No matter how melancholy the material on Palindrome Hunches, though, Halstead imbues each song with the same otherworldliness that’s made his records so spellbinding since the days of Slowdive. Throughout the album, he adorns the stark instrumentation with hushed yet powerful vocals and poetic yet lucid lyrics. With its sunny piano and tambourine beats, “Bad Drugs and Minor Chords” spins a wistful fairytale with Halstead warning his would-be love that “I’m not your rollercoaster, girl/I’m just a boy and I got no style.” On the title track, he serenades a “Kansas City girl in your Kansas City world” with a jumble of daffy palindromes (“Do geese see god?/I don’t suppose they do”) as gently tapped piano notes climb and descend. (“I wanted to write a song that was the same forward and backward but it didn’t quite work out,” explains Halstead, adding that he chose that track for the album’s title because “I like the idea of things being reversible.”) One of Palindrome Hunches’ most rousing moments, the bouncy piano ballad “Hey Daydreamer” makes a lovely and convincing case for choosing to dwell in the dreamworld. “That’s an aspirational song about refusing to accept things that aren’t quite right all around you,” says Halstead of “Hey Daydreamer,” which opens with his sky-reaching delivering the lyrics “I don’t wanna feel all right/I don’t wanna be just okay/I want to go everywhere/I want to see everything.”
Since he first began making music, Halstead’s supreme ability to pull others into that dreamworld has distinguished him as an artist. As a teenager, he joined his childhood friend Rachel Goswell in forming The Pumpkin Fairies (an indie-pop act whose sole recording was a seven-song cassette featuring a sleepy cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Stephanie Says”). In 1989, Halstead, Goswell, and fellow Pumpkin Fairies members Nick Chaplin (on bass) and Adrian Sell (on drums) partnered with guitarist Christian Savill to form Slowdive. Signing with Creation Records (a now-defunct British indie label whose roster also included the Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Teenage Fanclub, and, in later years, Oasis), Slowdive released its 1991 debut Just for a Day and quickly became regarded as a premier element of the massively influential shoegaze scene. After collaborating with Brian Eno on Souvlaki (widely hailed as a classic album that sets soaring melodies to a swirling, oceanic soundscape), Slowdive put out its final album Pygmalion and then parted ways with Creation.
Just weeks after leaving Creation, Halstead, Goswell, and Ian McCutcheon (who had replaced Sell as Slowdrive’s drummer) got together and began recording demos that would eventually grace Mojave 3’s debut Ask Me Tomorrow (a 1996 release from 4AD). Replacing the distorted-guitar sound of Slowdive with a more pastoral approach and distinct influence from artists like Nick Drake and Neil Young, Mojave 3 went on to release four more albums (including 2006’s Puzzles Like You, praised by Pitchfork for “the earnest jangle, the starry-eyed harmonies, the innocent melodies”). Pushing further into the folk-tinged sound he’d cultivated with Mojave 3, Halstead put out his first solo album (2002’s Sleeping on Roads) while the band was still active. In 2006 Halstead met Jack Johnson through a mutual surfing buddy and then signed to Brushfire Records. Released in 2008, Oh! Mighty Engine was lauded by Paste magazine as “sublime bedroom pop, all acoustic-based and velvet-vocaled, sincere but never strained, pretty and bittersweet.”
Although Palindrome Hunches’s brooding lullabies starkly contrast Slowdive’s fuzzed-out squall, Halstead finds all of his musical ventures united by a certain dreaminess of spirit. “With Slowdive it was less about the songs and more about atmosphere and distortion and sound,” he says. “So after the band ended I went through a period where I just wanted to learn to write the perfect song. I’m still learning that now, but the songs have a similar mood. For me it’s about exploring all these different approaches you can take to expressing your own weird way of looking at the world.”