There are certain luxuries afforded a member of a big-time rock band. People tend to heap praise indiscriminately at your feet, and the frequent-flier miles must be nice.
However, there comes a time when artists grow tired of a group’s insular nature, or seek fame and freedom on their own terms. Yet for every shimmering star (Peter Gabriel, Gwen Stefani), there’s a rocker whose solo career never quite breaks the atmosphere (Peter Criss, Billy Corgan).
Albert Hammond, Jr. isn’t exactly a Hollaback Girl, but he’s certainly no slouch. Best known as the rhythm guitarist for The Strokes, Hammond has spent much of the last decade building his own brand. He’s toured the world several times, played international festivals, and released a handful of well-received albums. While he may never fully escape the confines of Strokes-dom (or even dare dream of it), Hammond’s output is the groundwork on which lasting careers are made.
Perhaps it’s telling that Hammond was among the first of his bandmates to so go solo. From note one, 2006’s Yours to Keep sets Hammond apart from his musical brethren with a decidedly lush sound, infusing the fresh influence of The Beach Boys and John Lennon to skirt away from that early Strokes swagger in favor of endearing, ’70s-leaning pop (with plenty of kickin’ guitar solos packed in).
Two years later, in 2008, Hammond returned with ¿Cómo Te Llama?, which expanded his already eclectic approach (bits of reggae, Marc Bolan-esque jams, the distilled vigor of The Knack) to further solidify the idea of his viability as a true-blue solo star.
Hammond wouldn’t return with another solo LP until 2015’s Momentary Masters (blame an extended Strokes run). Here, he sought to recapture something essential from The Strokes’ early days, a passion and playfulness that exemplified their sound. The record is a flag waving us toward a rose-colored past.
It’s that trajectory that makes Hammond’s fourth record, 2018’s Francis Trouble, all the more intriguing. The LP is named after his unborn twin, Francis, a personal discovery made right around the time he underwent therapeutic “shadow work” to address past traumas (which took the form of an “unnurtured child,” as he told Rolling Stone). Connecting those kindred emotional experiences, Hammond crafted an album contemplating that precarious ley-line between life and death.
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It’s the emotional high-point of Hammond’s career, an exploration of identity through a maze of existential uncertainty and spiritual baggage. Sonically speaking, it belies such cerebral wanderings, a blast of all-out rock goodness, equal parts melodic and charming, brash and bratty. In a way, he’s come full circle, stitching together his cool-guy origins and penchant for earnestness. It’s an album that feels stuck not in a singular moment but interested in singular truths about life and death and everything between.
If Hammond has any lineage with other solo sensations, it’s certainly Graham Parker. (Though, technically, Parker was always the giant star shining in a sky held up by The Rumour.) Both are chameleons, constantly layering and discarding influences and ideas to fit a given album’s mood and scope. Both have experienced commercial success, but that celebrity has never shifted the focus away from the work at hand. And while the pair aren’t nearly as celebrated as their respective counterparts (eat your heart out, Julian Casablancas), it’s the savvy consumer that knows the true value of the wayfaring troubadour and his magical power-pop.
Hammond’s extended solo tour will be broken up this year as The Strokes plot their “2019 global comeback.” Those dates are bound to draw big crowds, furthering the career of a juggernaut of 2000s indie rock. But AHJ is equally astonishing on his own — just a man, a guitar, and a dream. Oh, and plenty of tasty hooks, too.