ALBUM REVIEW: Philippa Hanna – ‘Come Back Fighting’

The music industry can surprise you sometimes, catch you completely off guard and make you realise that no matter how much you think you know about the music available to you it is merely just a veritable tip of the iceberg. Ah, must be a debut album from a new artist, I thought, when the promo started to come through about ‘Come Back Fighting’ and Philippa’s April UK tour – looks a bit ‘Ward Thomas’ maybe? Maybe she’s riding the current ‘Country crest of the wave’ I thought but it turns out that ‘Come Back Fighting’ is the sixth album from a well-respected artist who has been releasing music since 2007!!!

Philippa Hanna is a bit of an outlier, a bit of a black swan. She’s supported the likes of Lionel Richie, Leona Lewis and Wet Wet Wet. She crowdfunds her albums with ease so doesn’t need the patronage or interference of a record label, she uses grant money from the likes of ‘BBC Introducing’ and she divides her time between Nashville and her native Yorkshire. She is everything that a modern, streaming friendly musician could be – talent in abundance and a sound business head too, it makes you wonder why she is not held up as a paradigm of how to succeed in the industry in these transitional times.

The elephant in the room, of course and you knew there had to be one, is that Philippa has made her reputation and money largely in the part of the musical Venn diagram labelled ‘Christian music’. A genre even more off-piste than Country music. If they were at school together, Country music would return snivelling from the playground bullies and give Christian music a slap round the head! But before you stop reading this and return to your agnostic lives I’m going to throw another truth into the mix – ‘Come Back Fighting’ is an excellent Country music album with high production values that showcases just how well this woman can sing, and the clever thing that Philippa has done is to make (most of) the lyrics ambiguous enough so that whilst you know she is referring to her belief in an almighty being, those of us of a more base persuasion can still access many of the songs on the album and find meaning in the messages of positivity, support and empowerment that litter this piece of work.

Make no mistake about it, Philippa Hanna has a right set of lungs on her, as they would say in her native Yorkshire. The album opens with the sassy, bombastic, Carrie Underwood-infused title track, ‘Come Back Fighting’. A huge drumbeat drives the song forward and Philippa is in an empowered, confident mood, declaring, “I can’t control what happens but I can get a hold on my reactions.” Part musical therapy, part self-help manual.

‘Off the Wagon’ continues in the same vein. Musically very different with its gentle, wistful Country stylings but lyrically it shares the same space as the title track. Every time you fall, you get back on the wagon, Philippa insists. For her that is religion, but for you it could be something else, someone else, somewhere else. The song is ambiguous enough for you to place it within the context of your own lives. New single, ‘Getting on With Life’ is a similar beast. This one carries a poppier edge, reminiscent of something that you might find on the last The Shires album. Here, Philippa wisely counsels against being judgemental, hoping to teach you that everyone has their own problems trapped inside their own little bubbles. It’s a lovely song with pure Country storytelling lyrics.

Mention of The Shires leads to me to possibly the most radio-friendly song on the album and one that must be released as a single at some point. ‘The Hero’ is a huge, huge song that has ‘made for Radio 2’ stamped loud and proud all across it. Built around the refrain, “everybody needs saving, everybody needs saving sometimes”, this would be a bone-fide hit if recorded by Crissie and Ben and I can only hope that the powers that be see the sense in throwing out to the world at some point.

Another song worthy of further promotion is ‘Dorothy’. Not that long-wished for ode to Albert Square’s most endearing resident but instead a funky, cool ‘Over the Rainbow’ tinged song about valuing what you have and not wishing the grass was always greener. ‘Dorothy’ is the most unusual song on ‘Come Back Fighting’, it has a sort of Train like nature to its melody – think ‘Bruises’ and you would be quite close. Philippa even dabbles a little with Pat Monahan’s (Train lead singer) style of lyrical cadence and the song is all the stronger for it.

Other highlights on the album include, ‘Do the Unthinkable’ in which, low-and-behold, she does the unthinkable and dabbles with EDM and modern programming whilst still retaining that kind of Carrie Underwood styled vocal power. Imagine Carrie Underwood singing a song by Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry and you would be just about there – interestingly this song carries my favourite line on the whole album, “I’m tired of living my life as a master fabricator.”

After what is undeniably a powerful and polished ride, ‘Come Back Fighting’ ends with two cover versions, ‘I Saw the Light’ by Hank Williams and ‘Always on my Mind’, by Willie Nelson / Elvis Presley. This is a curious decision and whilst both songs are very well done, particularly ‘I Saw the Light’, which is a gospel blast from beginning to end, neither song is as interesting as the ones that have gone before, which is a massive compliment to Philippa, as they don’t really add anything different or updated to their original versions.

This is first and foremost a Country album. Its way more Country than a lot of the stuff currently released under that banner. Philippa Hanna has a wonderful voice. Powerful at times, sultry at others and sweet when the song dictates it. She is a rare gem of a singer who is uber-confident in her own skin and that is reflected in the quality of the music on offer here. She sings her songs through the lens of faith, positivity and self-empowerment and for her she achieves that through her faith, but for other people those messages could be interpreted as self-belief or support from friends and family. There is no being beaten with a stick on this album, no having religion rammed down your throat – sure, the references are there but they are subtle (‘I Saw the Light’ notwithstanding, obviously) enough to pass you by the first time because believe me, the first few times you listen to this album you won’t hear anything but Philippa’s amazing voice anyway!

James Daykin
@rockjames