Happy 15th Anniversary to Van Hunt’s eponymous debut album Van Hunt, originally released February 24, 2004.
If you read my interview with Dayton, Ohio’s inimitable Van Hunt in August 2017, it was evident that he was not entirely happy with his first two albums. In reflecting on his recently liberated third album Popular, he even went so far as to say, “I don't really care that much for my previous work up to that point. There was too much interference, between me and the recording process.”
As a devoted lover of his self-titled debut album Van Hunt, this is a bitter pill to swallow, as it occupies a special place in my heart and collection. Part of that is caused by a sentimental attachment to the album, as it reminds me of the first flushes of love with my future wife. Yet the larger part of my love for his inaugural LP is the result of the wondrous concoction of different strains of soul/R&B music contained within.
If you listen to the albums that followed, it becomes a little clearer what Hunt might have meant when he spoke about not caring for the album. Each subsequent album revealed a little more of the independently minded artist that lurked within. Where this debut is smooth, rounded and broadly in keeping with the neo-soul that preceded it, future albums would become progressively rougher around the edges, grittier musically and less constrained by any limits that the label “neo-soul” could impose.
On The Jungle Floor from 2006 pushed the guitar slightly more front and center, Popular (2008/17) pushed that envelope further and embraced an edgier rock aesthetic, before 2011’s What Were You Hoping For? went full-on garage rock with nary a whisper of neo-soul. Lo-fi funk and soul reappeared with 2015’s The Fun Rises, the Fun Sets, but the ‘real’ Van Hunt was clearly a magpie of musical musings, never content to plough the same furrow for too long.
None of which should lead you to think that this debut is anything other than brilliant—it contains enough light and shade within the genre to alternately soothe the soul and enflame desire. Hunt’s winning touch with a lyric gets its first airing here—he is not averse to an acid-tinged kiss off or self-reflection of the most crushing kind.
Album opener and first single “Dust” is Hunt in a microcosm. A surging, euphoric melody in the chorus might have you thinking feel-good thoughts, but the lyrics are the bleak work of a seemingly depressed mind: “It’s just another day, another episode / I’m hiding under the world / It’s just another ray of merciful hope / I don’t expect many more.” All while the guitar chugs away robustly, perhaps deeper in the mix than it would be on subsequent albums, but it is there driving this juggernaut of a song forward, accompanied by starlight sprinkles of keys.
“Seconds Of Pleasure” is a bluesy, low-slung gem that drips with sensuality and seems like a straight up paean to snatched moments of joy until the final line leaves you in no doubt that Hunt is still suffering: “It’s all of the little things that you’ve done / to ease my burden and my confusion.”
The same infusion of blues pops up on the heart-breakingly pensive “Who Will Love Me In Winter,” in which a harmonica wails for all its worth and Hunt sings: “The autumn leaves fall from the trees / And hold me captive with a dance in the air / I know with the passing of these / I must find love from somewhere.”
The heartbreak and confusion of life is the recurring theme of the album. On even the most swooningly romantic cuts (“Precious” or “What Can I Say (For Millicent)”) a flash of fractured psyche blazes through the lyrics—a feeling that although romance or love is there, it is barely enough to cover the pain and misery that comes with it.
Elsewhere there are snatches of funk that befit a son of Dayton, Ohio. “Hello, Goodbye” rolls along on a gurgling, burbling groove and “Anything (To Get Your Attention)” slinks in and out of earshot like a Sly Stone concoction. Where the funk dominates it most often comes courtesy of a bouncing, bumping bassline such as the one that propels “Highlights” to live up to its moniker.
To these ears though, the twin jewels at the heart of the soul crown are “Hold My Hand” and “Out Of The Sky.” The former aches with restrained desire to a spitting, stop-start rhythm as Hunt beseeches to the accompaniment of Wendy Melvoin on rhythm guitar: “Hold my hand / Young lover come and get under my skin / It’ll all make sense to you.”
Album closer “Out Of The Sky” is further proof that pain and misery are Hunt’s lyrical preoccupations. The whole song is devoted to the thought of crashing and burning and it is hard not to read it as a treatise on the perils of the music industry: “I’m on my way down / And I seen some rising faces / But I’m fallin’ much too fast / To tell ‘em ‘bout the fate that’s waiting.” Its urgent, insistent groove is accompanied by a more detached vocal that only adds to the feeling of helplessness of Hunt meeting a sticky end.
Hunt’s own antipathy toward his debut album does nothing to diminish the impact of it. While he may have felt a disconnect between the process and the outcome, the quality of the songs stands up exceedingly well to scrutiny and if you’ve been lucky enough to catch him perform any of the songs live, you’ll know he imbues these debut tracks with the edge that grew in subsequent albums.
Like all great stories, the beginning is crucial in hooking you in and forcing you to devote time and effort to the continuation of the tale. This album is a great beginning. The beginning of a career filled with delicate misery-tinged ballads, vital, throbbing sexually charged obsession and unabashed introspection. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?