For those who saw The Strokes as a kind of exquisitely realised indie-rock boyband, Albert Hammond Jr. was the badass: the one who knew a hundred ways to open a bottle of beer, none of which involved a bottle opener; who knew how to match a suit to a skinny tie; the kind of guy who’d light a cigarette just to let it burn like an incense stick in the neck of his guitar.
The 35 year old’s music, however, has always revealed a more thoughtful, sensitive soul. Hammond’s third solo album takes its title from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, a book about mankind’s place in the universe and our potential to transcend it, while thematically, he’s been talking up the influence of the confessional poet Anne Sexton on his lyric writing. His previous albums, 2006’s ‘Yours To Keep’ and 2008’s ‘¿Cómo Te Llama?’ have shown a knack for sweet, lovingly-crafted, mid-fi pop songs, some of which are good enough to make you wonder if the next Strokes album could be that long-awaited rival to ‘Is This It’. Realistically, The Strokes seem to be moving further away from what Hammond does, and that’s a shame, because on this evidence, he’s getting better and better at it.
‘Momentary Masters’ is his most satisfying, cohesive record yet, and, in many ways, his most personal. He’s described lead single ‘Born Slippy’ – bright and ebullient on the outside, but with undercurrents of self-doubt – as a song about what happens “when what has defined you for a long time isn’t there anymore,” and given his well-publicised problems with drugs and the always-ambiguous nature of his day-job, there are any number of ways you can interpret a line like, “Every time you stop, I begin”. Elsewhere, the slower, synth-textured ‘Coming To Getcha’ is styled as a conversation between Hammond and the late friend the album is dedicated to – a conversation which only seems to make sense in snatches (“She never made it back, she’s stuck in transit”) but which is clearly loaded with meaning.
The lyrical focus on dualities and alter-egos is only one level on which ‘Momentary Masters’ can be enjoyed: the twitchy garage-rock strut of ‘Caught By My Shadow’ or ‘Losing Touch’ (which cheekily appropriates the intro to Kings Of Leon’s ‘The Bucket’) work just as well as smart, snappy, self-contained pop songs. Yet for all Hammond’s gifts as a writer, he’s never been blessed with a particularly distinctive voice, and there’s a slightly generic American-indie timbre to the delivery of tracks like ‘Touché’, or the bizarrely titled ‘Side Boob’, which means they take a few listens to really connect. Plonked incongruously in the middle, however, is a spruced-up bedroom demo of Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’, on which he charmingly sticks to the original’s folksy patois (“If’n you don’t know by now; the light I never knowed” etc) and which ends up being – even in its unvarnished, off-the-cuff form – one of its most characterful and affecting moments.
Hammond is still growing into this solo artist thing, and it’s easy to forget that it’s been seven years since his last release, recorded at a time when he was spending thousands of dollars a week on cocaine and heroin. In some respects, ‘Momentary Masters’ is the work of a different person: older and wiser, but still receptive to wonder and capable of naivety. It seems pointless to speculate on how – or if – Hammond’s growth as a songwriter will impact on The Strokes, but for the man himself, this album registers as a significant achievement.