Tales from a fictional world with a chilling link to reality.
Inspired by the dystopia in the TV drama ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and the novel by Margaret Atwood that lies behind it, ‘Letters from Gilead’ by The Haze & Dacey Collective has huge topical connection. A single genre does no justice to their sound that blends indie folk, alt country, pop, rock and a little gospel. But running throughout is a haunting restlessness that perfectly binds these stories of the hope, courage and humanity required to survive deeply uncertain times. The initial idea may have come out of fiction but two years of pandemic followed by political upheaval have bestowed profound relevance upon ‘Letters from Gilead’. Events since its release last November only amplify that resonance. From the novel and TV adaptation Gilead is the name of the totalitarian regime that follows a second American civil war that subjugates fertile women (handmaidens) to a life of slavery. Fired up by binge watching the first two seasons Kirsten ‘Haze’ Hazler was inspired to write these songs (letters) to be smuggled out of this hell. Consequently she describes herself less as a writer and more as a medium. Familiarity with either dramatisation or book adds a layer of context but neither is essential to the appreciation of Hazler’s creation.
Since 2012 based in Virginia, Hazler and her partner in life and music John Dacey have been performing as a duo. Hazler writes and plays guitar and piano, Dacey plays electric and upright bass. Some of these songs appeared on their setlist in 2019 but the pandemic put back recording, not least because Hazler felt they needed more than a duo. Thus was born the Collective, a highly impressive group of musicians. Much of the album has a strong alt country feel. ‘My Name is June’ sets the scene, “I am a mother and a daughter, a lover and a friend / The world that I once knew is gone, impossible to comprehend”. Vocally and in tempo the lines are filled with anxiety and foreboding. ‘Blue’ is more than a colour but a single focal point to block out the horror of this woman’s existence. A lively tempo harks back to long-lost innocence. Doug Austin’s glittering mandolin shines a light as Hazler, Joni-like, looks wistfully to a ‘Sliver of Joy’ in this dreadful place.
Why Hazler decided to expand beyond her duo is explained by the powerful roots rock of ‘Under His Eye’. Hazler’s edgy vocals convey the courage needed to lay low until when, “We need to burn it all down to build a better day / We’ve got nothing to lose, we are the martyr maids”. Leslie Williams weaponises his electric guitar. The title track is the album’s highlight, a driving shaft of hope that “this letter will somehow make it through to you”. The Collective’s backing vocals turn a plea into an anthem.
If there is no let-up in the lyrical content sonically, there a welcome respite comes through the jazzy swing of ‘Jezebel’s’ and gentle lullaby of ‘Hannah’. The closing ‘Oh Canada’ is a round of desperate hope that escape might come eventually.
Hitching an entire album to another form of art comes with risk. Where The Haze & Dacey Collective pull it off so comprehensively lies in the versatility of ‘Letters from Gilead’. Whether musically, the direct lyrics or its original concept in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, this is a riveting listen.