For an artist at the relative beginning of his career, Micah P. Hinson has experienced more ups and downs and Byzantine turns over a few short years than most musicians do in a decade or more. His gloomy, stunning debut, Micah P. Hinson and the Gospel of Progress – released in 2004 and widely praised in the UK, but mostly ignored in his home country – was largely inspired by a doomed affair with a model that spiraled out of control, leaving Hinson homeless, broke and addicted to narcotics. After a follow-up EP, The Baby & the Satellite, was released earlier this year, Hinson injured his back when a band mate playfully punched him, aggravated the condition while on tour in Europe, and was ultimately forced to return to his hometown of Abilene, Texas to have surgery and convalesce. It was during this extended period of painful recovery, heavily medicated once again, that he recorded Micah P. Hinson and the Opera Circuit.
The “Opera Circuit” of the title refers to the group of musical friends – including saxophonist/arranger Eric Bachmann of Crooked Fingers and Gospel of Progress contributor Henry Da Massa on harmonica – that made the journey to Abilene to record at home with Hinson, and they bring a fairly dizzying array of sounds and textures to the album, as does Hinson himself, switching from acoustic to electric guitar, banjo, mandolin, piano, organ and even percussion.
Despite the difficulties Hinson was experiencing during the recording sessions, the album has a slightly sunnier quality than the pitch black Gospel of Progress. “Diggin A Grave,” a comically macabre banjo-driven polka number that falls musically somewhere between Abilene and Warsaw, is more lighthearted than anything on either the debut album or The Baby & the Satellite EP. On “Jackeyed” (“Jackeyed all day long/As I sit and I sing these same old songs/It’s hard to think you’d care/When it’s hard to find you almost anywhere”), Hinson fights through the pain, marching along slightly unsteadily on horns, swinging percussion and double, overdubbed vocals, which give the tune an appropriately inebriated, off-kilter quality.
One of the things that lends Hinson’s music its distinctive cast is his deep, tobacco-ravaged, gravelly drawl. On “Drift Off to Sleep” he delivers the album’s standout vocal performance, his wide-open Texas vowels cracking slightly while soaring gently over acoustic guitar and a tender string arrangement. It’s the album’s least baroque moment – an exquisitely diaphanous, gentle, melancholy song. The dusty “She Don’t Own Me,” with its gently plucked banjo, quivering strings and distant, echoing harmonica, is another hushed beauty, with Hinson resigning himself to a relationship that’s given up the ghost while doing his best to put on a brave face.
Despite some lighter moments, Hinson still loves to revel in heartache, and like The Gospel of Progress, The Opera Circuit lends itself best to late-night or rainy day listening. The soaring, electric, Bob Mould-ish “You’re Only Lonely” is perhaps the only one of album’s 11 songs that doesn’t fit this profile, but it demonstrates what Hinson can do when he chooses to open up his sound a bit.
Still in his mid-twenties, Hinson joins a distinguished line of Texas musical iconoclasts. The Opera Circuit sees him exploring some new avenues while staying with what he does best – writing dark songs about love and pain. In the span of three years, he has created an extraordinary body of music, despite all the hardships, and it will be very interesting to see what’s around the corner. Can Hinson produce the same kind of quality without dragging himself through hell again? For his sake, one would certainly hope so.