What do Sarah Blasko, Silverchair, The Grates and Jimmy Barnes all have in common? Their latest albums were all made outside Australia using overseas producers. Other bands such as Powderfinger and Bridezilla brought in the overseas producer, while Tame Impala, The John Steel Singers and Dan Kelly recorded in Australia but then sent their albums offshore to be mixed. Why do bands do this? The answer is that we don’t have sufficient numbers of talented producers or engineers to make bands feel confident enough to record here. Artists, management and record companies hear the punch and quality of overseas recordings and know that this will give them an advantage when their songs are taken to local radio and into the marketplace. The problem seems to be that despite the proliferation of audio courses and the years of recording experience, there isn’t a system or culture in Australia that can produce a regular crop of commercial rock producers or maverick, signature-sound engineer/producers – none, at any rate, that a diverse list of Australian artists wish to employ consistently. So Jimmy Barnes, in his chase to produce his tenth number-one album, has gone to LA, a recording location he knows very well.
At the helm of Barnes’s sixteenth solo album is the American producer Don Gehman. Not only has he produced four previous Jimmy Barnes albums, but he was responsible for Hunters and Collectors’ Cut (1992), Diesel’s Hepfidelity (1992) and the co-production of Boom Crash Opera’s Fabulous Beast (1993). Gehman’s critical and industry reputation still rests primarily on his ’80s work, when he produced John Mellencamp’s big-selling breakthrough albums, Scarecrow (1985) and The Lonesome Jubilee (1987), and also REM’s Life’s Rich Pageant (1986), which took them from the indie underground to widespread commercial radio play. With these successful albums and a consistent work ethic – his curriculum vitae also takes in Barbara Streisand, Steve Stills and Neil Young, and Pat Benatar – it is not surprising that Gehman was an attractive option when Barnes first hooked up with him back in 1990 for the Two Fires album. And for Rage and Ruin Gehman has brought in the top session players once again, musicians with credits such as Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and The Eagles listed in brackets after their names in the record’s promotional material. So it’s known hands, big-name players and a producer who loves his drums loud and metronomic, his guitars neat and hooky and his mixes smooth.
Cold Chisel are a band that sound better in retrospect than they did at the time. They are a very ’70s group and their music benefits, as much late ’70s and early ’80s rock does, from being recorded on analogue tape, mostly with a live ‘feel’, and before producers got their hands on the drums and turned them into the most prominent instrument on every song. And they had songs: good songs. Everyone in the band wrote. With the melting away of much of the contemporary hype around the group – the great Aussie pub-rock myth being the worst offender, as if no other country in the world had bands grinding away in tough bars – Cold Chisel’s rather idiosyncratic mix of boogie-woogie piano, searing blues-drenched guitar solos and a broad palette of song styles stands them in good stead. The one clear benefit for Barnes of being in Cold Chisel was the opportunity to sing the fine lyrics of the band’s chief songwriter, Don Walker, and it was the tension between the firebrand, Glasgow-born singer and his more cerebral ‘muso’ band-mates that made the group so intriguing. Rage and Ruin being purportedly a rock record brings his former band to mind, a connection further strengthened by the album’s autobiographical slant and capped with ‘Largs Pier Hotel’, the album’s final track, in which Barnes wistfully looks back at Cold Chisel’s roughhouse beginnings.
Two sheets of promotional information accompany media copies of the album, and they are instructive. One double-sided sheet has two- or three-sentence summaries by Barnes of each of the record’s 12 songs, the other sheet has more general information concerning the album-making process, including some thoughts from Barnes on the album’s intentions and themes. The quotes he gives reflect, in the choice of language and phrasing, a vagueness and jumbling of meaning that is also found in his lyrics. Barnes declares, “It was about looking back on my days of rage and ruin, but having the benefit of 20-20 hindsight to get through it … So although the lyrics are fairly dark and meaningful, they’re also positive. That’s the crux of what this whole album is about.” This sounds good, but how can you look back at your past with “20-20 hindsight to get through it”? And what does this mean for past and present, and their truthful evocation? Rage and Ruin is not a cathartic, warts-and-all exposé: Barnes as an artist is perhaps not capable of this; certainly he isn’t as a lyricist. The first four songs of the album are love songs, and when ‘I’ve Seen It All (Rage and Ruin)’ and ‘This Ain’t the Day That I Die’ arrive at the middle of the record, they are stocked with so much generic ‘rock’ language, and hunger so intensely for the balm of redemption and love, that very little is said about the ‘ruin’ at all.
There is one good song, called ‘God Or Money’, and from its opening Tom Petty-ish guitar chimes through to the attractive melodic changes of verse, chorus and middle eight, it succeeds and deserves to be an FM radio hit. There are two other songs of some originality or interest. One of them is the heavy and hilarious gospel of ‘Adam Was Just a Man’, where Barnes, clearly energised by indignation at organised religion but also versed in the music of the church, lets rip, working up to the unaccompanied late scream of “We’re all here on our own” – and it sounds like the central moment of the record. On ‘Largs Pier Hotel’, a folk song with a melody of no great originality, there is at least a break from the tempo and style of the rest of the album, even if Barnes’s reminiscences of the tough Adelaide pub sound unreal and detached. This is an overall problem with the record. Barnes doesn’t want to dig too deep, and what he does reveal is so suffocated by cliché that you wonder if you are listening to an actual life being recounted at all. Jimmy’s “down”, he’s “alone”, he’s “to blame”, he’s “on the edge of a breakdown”, and there’s “a bitter wind blowing behind” him, but he’s also “running with the wind in my face / But at least I had my feet on the ground” and so it goes. Confidence was not high on encountering an album with three song titles having the word ‘heart’ in them, and other such well-worn titles as ‘Can’t Do It Again’, ‘Time Can Change’ and ‘Turn It Around’. And the best line is not even on the record. When discussing ‘This Ain’t the Day That I Die’ and its depiction of his former days of drinking and drugs, Barnes says, “It takes more than you think to kill yourself, to beat yourself down.” Oh, for some of that on this album.
The confusion of the lyrics aside, there is another problem. Although billed as a collection of songs from Jimmy Barnes “that rock in all the right places”, it’s not really a rock album at all. In fact, it is a luxurious-sounding, well-crafted pop record. No guitars scream, the drums are down and muted from their ’80s whack and, when a solo does come, no twiddle-noted, high-volume guitar leaps forward, but rather the glide of a Hammond organ or an accordion. This ain’t Queens of the Stone Age or even The Foo Fighters; it’s an LA pop record with a little bit of grunt. And unfortunately, although it may serve Barnes and his record company’s commercial aspirations, it does little for Barnes the artist trying to make some noise and tell us of his past. Any vulnerability he wished to display can’t get through the production, which is relentless even by Gehman’s standards. A thick chugging wall of sound starts on song one, which with little change in the mix or dynamic range pours all the way through to the strummed, synthetic mandolin/guitar texture at the start of ‘Largs Pier Hotel’. A few times on the album, after second choruses in which for the arrangement’s sake the band is pulled back for half a verse, Barnes suddenly swims forward close to the listener, like a fish at the glass of an aquarium, and then the band kicks back in and he’s gone, back into the murk and sludge.
The central drama of Jimmy Barnes, and of Rage and Ruin in particular, is the discrepancy between the rough-and-tough public image and the predictability and steadiness of his music. The man loves a power ballad too. There are three on the album of a sentimentality and shamelessness to make Bonnie Tyler blush. ‘Stupid Heart’ has “stupid” sung as “stoopid” in an American accent – Barnes does switch ‘voices’ through the record – and ‘Time Can Change’ has a chorus, sung over slow lofting chords, that no matter how much time and effort is thrown at it, still refuses to yield any clear meaning:
Only time can change the way things are
Hope and faith will only take us so far
And if we don’t give up without a fight
When it comes to the heart
Only time can change the way we are.
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