Hefner’s most appealing variety of weirdness, for me, was their willful, enthusiastic and deeply self-conscious embrace of the pathetic. The Fidelity Wars was a masterpiece for a heartbroken twenty-something, which is exactly what I was when I first discovered the album. Darren Hayman’s vocals were plaintive, the songs’ themes unabashedly bathed in the deep treacle of self-pity, the depth of the instrumentation stripped back to resemble talented lounge rockers in a large empty room; it’s a masterpiece designed for someone convinced with the alarming confidence of youth that their best days are now behind them in the wake of their first (or most recent) major failure in maintaining a romantic and sexual relationship with another human being.
I also love the album as a happily married man and dad, so, you know… this album works.
I didn’t need to wait fifteen years to convince myself The Fidelity Wars was an album deserving of praise. There’s an art to break-up music. The Smiths were masters at this, writing songs that swam down to sit beside you at the bottom of your sadness and were there for you on the nights it all felt like an old boring memory with that little key undertone of knowing you weren’t quite over it. Not yet. Hefner reached me in a way I wasn’t expecting: Hayman sings about sex, the illicit pleasure of secret assignations, the suspicion of your partner cheating on you feeling so real it must be true regardless of whether it is or not, the soaring certainty that two people need to be together, and the deeply sad realization that you don’t always get to be one of those two people.
This is remarkably difficult to do. Singing about drinking too much as part of a mostly malformed attempt at clumsy seduction opens one up to managing that horrific mixing together of the rococo, the overly earnest and the dizzyingly self-important. The Fidelity Wars instead successfully recreates the wonder and the fear of feeling your way through (what seemed at the time) the immensely complicated courting rituals of being in your twenties and beyond. Lyrical details betray the band’s British origins, it’s true, but lamentations over the growing awareness your partner is trying to build up the courage to leave you while you both do your best to pretend that’s not happening are universal in appeal. The celebration of the mundane on this album works because the importance of that to its songwriters is clearly not superficial. The result is a clear sense of place.
“Was it she who wrote porn is woman hatred on my overcoat? Christ, I need that coat.”
Finally, the key to this album lies in its ultimate celebration of victory. The women written into these songs serve as objects of adulation, desire, regret, shared pity; they’re human, but part of a broader metaphysical search for happiness denied. Hayman celebrates, begs, cajoles, and ultimately the album ends with a defiant, throaty yell in declaration of love, the embarrassment of being rejected and left alone consumed by the certainty that this romantic failure will endure as the defining characteristic of his existence from now until the end, whenever that finally gets here and whatever form it takes. He is ruined, and that ruination has become an inseparable part of the person he must now be.
“Who gave you the right to bruise my little heart?
You tore it right apart, I was saving it for art.
You knew just what to do, so who gave you the clue?
I love no one else, I love only you.”
It’s that embrace of defeat that endears this album to me, that deepens my connection to it beyond enjoying it as a great pop album. The songs’ protagonist, ultimately, reached down into this defeat and found victory. There’s something sad about that of course; many who come out on the wrong side of a relationship ending find solace in this, using the comfort of permanency brought with certainty of that defeat’s finality, its comprehensive and unquestioned impact on the rest of your life. Hefner aren’t content with that. The album ends on a triumphant note, a rejection of the rejection, a celebration of the love denied, a proud declaration of love, at its most idealistic in the deliberate forgetting of its ending. It is Hefner’s capturing of that brazen emotional declaration and its essence that raises this album beyond sustenance for the broken up and makes it something classic: a break-up album that defines a meaningful genre.