Hefner write songs like the ones Billy Bragg did before he became a medium for Woody Guthrie: simple, catchy and fueled by the tension between sex and higher ideals. The connection between the two artists is made all but explicit on We Love the City's penultimate track, "The Day That Thatcher Dies." Singer Darren Hayman may start by anticipating the death of Britain's former prime minister, but, as with Bragg, his motives are just as personal as they are political: He associates her with all his school-age sex traumas, and therefore she must die.
Hefner have been juggling principles and pleasures in this brainy, self-effacing manner over the course of two albums now (three, if you count the Boxing Hefner singles collection), but the Violent Femmes-cum-Pavement territory they work already feels uniquely theirs in this post-Bragg age. In a just world, they'd be a bigger Anglo-cult band than fellow Scots Belle and Sebastian; in such a world, however, half of Hayman's girlfriends wouldn't have dumped him and he'd have nothing to write about.
City, without abandoning the basics, takes steps toward a more mature appeal. Hayman's no longer being snubbed by frumpy women such as "The Librarian" or cracking his voice, Femmes-style, on the high notes (he's stopped trying to hit them); instead, the album offers up horn sections, improved production, sane relationships and a ballad so sugary and vulnerable ("From Your Head to Your Toes") it could win over Elliott Smith fans. Sure, Hayman is still moaning about London's public transportation, an ex-lover who dumped him in favor of her art and "The Greedy Ugly People" -- the same trivial complaints from which he's always mined gold -- only now he's mixed in a few sober moments. "We are stupid and dumb," he apologizes, "but we're only young." He shouldn't be so hard on himself. As with Bragg, heady youth is what makes Hefner work; their earnest ideals are only the means to the end.