August 2006

Essays

God save his soul

By Robert Forster
The Sleepy Jackson’s ‘Personality: One Was a Spider, One Was a Bird’

It happened the old-fashioned way, by hearing the single first. ‘God Lead Your Soul’, it’s called. You play it once and think, That’s a strange record, and then find it doesn’t leave you. You come back the next day and play it twice, and it intrigues even more. So you try and unlock its charms, its whereabouts, almost. What is this record, this glorious slice of circa-1970 country-pop that begins as if in the middle of the song, and then continues to shift across the musical landscape like a Western stagecoach – harmonies, pedal steel, a brass section from the late-’60s all coming in, and yet none of it, bizarrely enough, with the imprint of retro upon it. The song’s good, and it’s been carried through these production styles to create something otherworldly and precious, and miles from the punch of much contemporary music. It’s the work of Luke Steele, he of The Sleepy Jackson, and it’s the first shot of a man going out on a limb, consequences be damned.

The Sleepy Jackson came out of Perth in 1999. They released two well-received EPs, and then Lovers, their debut album, came out in 2003. As career positioning, it all seemed perfect. The album got ecstatic reviews, then ARIA nominations, and the international press sat up and took notice. Here was a young band with a charismatic lead singer and songwriter ready to go anywhere. Lovers charted in the UK, the band toured, but, as often happens with successful young musicians on the road, things started to fray. Members left, management got tangled, lawsuits and bad blood followed. After the giddy trip, Steele found himself alone (a recurrent word on this new album): the captain of the ship, as always, but with no one around him to command. Personality was born of these circumstances. It’s the fight out. The work of a man on a mission – chips on both shoulders, God behind him – convinced he can make a masterpiece.

The album’s set-up is almost a pastiche of a pop epic. There’s a 24-piece live orchestra, percussion, vibraphone, banks of harmonies and choral arrangements, plus the usuals: synths, keyboards, bass and drums, and up to four guitarists on some songs. It’s all there, a sumptuous blend heralding the confidence Steele has in his own songwriting. All of this is fuelled by the very interesting “personality” of Steele, who is nearly a parody, at times, of the eccentric, messianic pop-star. He has created an alter ego called Luke Blonde (Steele in a blond wig), who runs the Church of Harmonology; there are photos with clocks and other props, slogans written on hands, and a whole run of attention-seeking pop behaviour that’s both a cry for meaning and a way for him to psych himself into total self-belief. He’s got that, and he’s set out to make that very rare beast, hard to find on the Australian major-label roster: the big-budget, soaringly ambitious, experimental pop-album.

His choice of cohorts and location in this endeavour is striking. Steele, for all his cosmic intentions, seems to prefer things local. He still lives in hometown Perth. No big-name overseas producer on the record, but rather Scott Horscroft, part-owner of and engineer at Big Jesus Burger Studios in inner Sydney. Horscroft is an intriguing choice for Steele to make at this stage of his career: no obvious big-hit-maker, but a composer, sound artist and musician with avant-garde leanings, who’s obviously been brought in because of his attitude to sound. The studio is an analogue-equipment paradise. Steele’s gone for authenticity and naturalness, tinged with the possibilities of the “out there”, a place where he believes his visions and dreams of the songs can be brought to life. A place, also, where he will remain in control.

There are 13 songs on the album and it comes in at a crisp 42 minutes. One can be thankful that Steele doesn’t have a taste for progressive rock, because with music this grand it could expand and bloat to anything. His love of pop and the hook keep him in line and the album focused. Steele’s great talent as a songwriter is as a melodicist. All his work hums with it, none of it too startling in its turns, but none of it hackneyed or trite, either. Part of his gift is pulling strong choruses out of verses, and they flow with no feeling of I-need-a-hit assemblage. His cherished era (at least on this record) is the late-’60s and the ’70s; his ambition is to put a spin on it and crash it into the future. The songs reference the big boys of pop: The Beach Boys, McCartney, Electric Light Orchestra, The Bee Gees, a stretch to Prince, some folk. It’s a generational reshuffle, weeding out some of the more iconic artists of the past for a reappraisal of those once deemed a little un-hip, at the sweet end of the pop spectrum.

The distinguishing feature of Personality is its sound. It was the grab that pulled me in on first hearing ‘God Lead Your Soul’. The album is thick with instrumentation; when something comes into the mix it doesn’t tend to leave. The mixes themselves aren’t all that dynamic – there isn’t the usual pulling-out and highlighting of lead instrumentation and riffs. Everything stays very much in the middle. All of this is intentional, and any response depends on where one stands aesthetically on such an approach. The album does have a lovely analogue pull-and-tug, but it also starts to feel very heavy and thick two-thirds in. It’s an album in need of some remixing, a decluttering and highlighting, lead vocal up, strings coming in and being heard, guitars up or out. Things aren’t helped by the large amount of layered backing-vocals from Steele that eat up a lot of space. A pop album needs to breathe, and one appreciates the moments of clarity that infrequently arrive.

One such moment is ‘Miles Away’, a gorgeous strummed ballad. It’s spare and cut down; Steele’s vocal is thrown high in the mix, where it pulls you right in. Here is engagement, a connection between artist and listener. A piano line on the chorus comes in, and it’s the first really effective overdub on the album since the brass on ‘God Lead Your Soul’. Lyrically, it is also a welcome break from a lot of moaning and angst over his history and former band-members. Steele gets emotional and it comes as a clear pool of thought. His description of a lost trip across America is poignant and moving: “Couldn’t tell you why / Couldn’t tell you why I was so cold with you then.” He sings over a breathtaking melody, cueing the line, “We still love you at home but you’re not here now.” It’s the album’s first real emotional wham, done with ease and class.

‘How Was I Supposed to Know?’ is similar – though instead of being stripped-back it has the full string-driven production – and again an emotional vulnerability shines through: “How was I supposed to know that I was on my own? / Why do I keep telling you I was on my own?” They’re the last words on Personality, sung to a lover, sung to himself. Past all the bravado, and the biting, and the machinations of the superstar trip, there is the confused boy, mostly hidden on this album, but when he does appear he brings beautiful songs.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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