Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Album Review # 4 The Triffids - Born Sandy Devotional

I'm going to be self-indulgent here but I think this is the best thing I've written in the eight months or so I've been writing this blog. Please listen to this record.

"When we finished Born Sandy Devotional I knew it was the best thing we’d ever done, there was no question about it. The writing was much more autobiographical than anything I’d done before, I felt quite close to the subject matter. I found myself almost following the idea of fidelity as a complete all-consuming faith, to give you some sort of direction or something. And ‘Born Sandy Devotional’? It was the name of a song which didn’t make it onto the record which is about someone called Sandy… I like titles like those, they’re just a law unto themselves and they have a feeling unto themselves. Born Sandy Devotional is the culmination of our efforts trying to capture our more considered lyrical approach with a physical intensity… well not really, but that will have to do." David McComb .

This album is one of the most literary records in my collection and I've got quite a few. Many of them date back to the early to mid-eighties when there seemed to be quite a demand for this kind of thing. A lot of talented people were choosing music at this point as a medium for literary exploration. Morrissey, Robert Forster, Grant McLennan, Michael Stipe, Lloyd Cole, Paddy Macaloon, Nick Cave, Roddy Frame, Mike Scott. And David McComb who stands comparison with the best of them.

He wrote every track on here. Each song could be considered a short story or a synopsis or fragment of a novel. They're also self contained. But they're not exercises in style. They're incredibly deeply felt and realised. Not all of them are in the first person but they are all inhabited. All of life's strongest emotions are heightened on here to almost intensely painful degrees; wonder, pain itself, obsession, madness, grief, hope, love, happiness and loss.

There are times on the record when virtually everything seems to be at stake. This is a difficult trick to pull off. It could easily tip over into cheap melodrama. I was never a huge fan of the records Nick Cave released at around about the same time for example because I thought he made this mistake all the time . I felt he got too close to his songs. McComb and The Triffids knew to keep some distance. The main way I think they managed this is because the accompanying music here is so essentially beautiful and full of the light of the landscape they grew up in that the individual songs and the album as a whole never collapse into maudlin introspection or self pity. They know exactly how to sugar their pill by lacing some intensely tough subject matter with sweetness and grace.

The record cover is an aerial photograph of a beachal coastline in Mandurah, Western Australia where the band hail from. It was taken in 1961. McComb was born the following year. This is not either insignificant or inconsequential as the group and McComb in particular are immersing themselves in their past and their landscape here. His comment above about the autobiographical nature of these songs and his own closeness to their subject matter was really helpful to me in getting a fuller handle on understanding what happens on the record. His statement about the focus on fidelity as an all consuming faith is even more revealing as on closer investigation of the songs and their lyrics it can be identified as the driving obsession of the protagonists on every track on Born Sandy Devotional.

The Triffids had taken a long time to get to this point as a group, releasing countless singles, EPs and a solitary album Treeless Plain released in 1983. And all the time touring relentlessly across the breadth and depth of Australia, learning their craft and developing their vision. In order to make their great leap forward they chose to uproot themselves and move to England in 1984, following in the footsteps of fellow Australian friends and mentors The Saints, The Birthday Party and The Go Betweens. By this point they had become a sturdy, confident set of musicians, the slightly amateurish, ramshackle nature of their early records had broadened into a confident wide screen sound that few of the British bands of the time could live with either on record or live.

For opening song The Seabirds I can't improve on quoting the whole lyric because it shows better than anything else exactly what level The Triffids and McComb would be playing at here:

"No foreign pair of dark sunglasses
will ever shield you from
the light that pierces your eyelids,
the screaming of the gulls
feeding off the bodies of the fish
thrashing up the bay till it was red
turning the sky a cold dark colour
as they circled overhead.

He swam out to the edge of the reef
there were cuts across his skin
saltwater on his eyes and arms,
but he could not feel the sting
there was no one left to hold him back

no one to call out his name
dress him feed him drive him home
say "Little boy it doesn't have to end this way"

He announced their trial separation
and spent the night in a Park Beach Motel bed
a total stranger lying next to him
rain hitting the roof hard over his head
she said "What's the matter now lover boy
has the cat run off with your tongue?
Are you drinking to get maudlin
or drinking to get numb?"

He called out to the seabirds "Take me now,
I'm no longer afraid to die"
but they pretended not to hear him
and just watched him with their hard and bright black eyes
they could pick the eye from any dying thing
that lay within their reach
but they would not touch the solitary figure
lying tossed up on the beach.

So, where were you? "
(McComb 1986)

It's about the journey within and how the elemental landscape you find yourself in, (and there can't be a landscape much more elemental and enveloping than the one McComb and The Triffids understood so well)  can turn pitiless, rip you apart and devour you. McComb knew his literature. This reminds me of Camus' The Outsider, Paul and Jane Bowles' writing about Northern Africa (particularly The Sheltering Sky) and what I imagine Malcolm Lowry's  Under the Volcano to be like (haven't read it, should do one day).

The 'little boy it doesn't have to end this way' line is resonant because the second track, Estuary Bed, takes us back to where it started or thereabouts. 'The children are walking back from the beach'. It's about the blessed realm of childhood. How the weeks of a summer spent on the beach on the sand and in the sea can stretch out into an eternal, golden, sensory state. 'Wasting away for hours and hours and hours.' McComb is really strong on the physical sensations of being adolescent.The sun, salt and silt but the song as far as I can understand it is about the inevitable transition from that false eternity and the vain striving afterwards in the narrator's consciousness to recover what's gone forever. 'Come on, climb over your father's back fence. For the very last time take a short cut across his lawn.' Breaking the father's law not for the very last time on this album by any means. McComb studied divinity, literature and journalism and he puts it all to good use here . It's not entirely clear what occurs but we are left to draw our own conclusions  'Silt returns across the passage of flesh...I bear the stain. It won't wash off.' The landscape remains, endures and renews itself. What's human is recovered by the elements. 'What use memory covered in estuary silt?'

(I've done my best to interpret things here but much of it is beyond me. Still. This track is something truly special.Trust me. Great use of vibraphone!)

How often do we listen to our favourite records over a lifetime? Born Sandy Devotional must be amongst my top twenty most played albums. Possibly top ten. I've had it for almost thirty years. But I've never really heard its third song Chicken Killer before I listened to it in order to write this a few days ago. I've been thinking about it ever since

 I always thought it was one of The Triffids joke songs. They certainly produced a few. McComb was so prolific that he would dash them off and the band would spit them out and they would race on to the next. This strength was eventually their downfall in my opinion as they finally lost quality control and coughed up some real duds which fatally overtipped their final album. But that's another story.

My younger sister, and I would laugh about this track together. 'Here it comes Chicken Killer again' just as Jill Birt, The Triffids second vocalist and McComb would rip into the chorus together, 'Here he comes the killer again. Here he comes the chicken killer again.' It was slight. And slightly ridiculous. So I thought. I've now discovered it's not!

The problem lies in the lack of  lyric sheet. This album really deserves and would be complemented by one. The words to Chicken Killer are just superb! It's a tale of madness in the Australian outback. Flannery O'Connor or Faulkner would be proud. The protagonist is the bewildered hen slayer of the song's title. He runs through the corn fields where he first courted his dead love, grief stricken, ribs poking through his yellow skin. Blasting the birds on the telephone line, scaring the local children, He's delirious in pain; driven mad by the scalding rural sun and the loss of his love. The locals gather round and try to calm him, indicating the heavens where she is now. But the chicken killer can't hear them. He makes reference to a man on a cross on a hill but knows that he himself is damned. And afterwards, destined to become the stuff of local folklore

'And the children were singing, "Here he comes the killer again
Here he comes the chicken killer again"
My ears were filled with that joyful ringing
My ears were filled with that happy singing'


For Tarrilup Bridge McComb hands the stage over more fully to Jill Burt. She's generally given every fifth or sixth song throughout The Triffids career. It would probably be accurate to say she doesn't have an operatic vocal range and would be more fairly placed in the Mo Tucker school of singing than in Edith Piaf's but this can be really effective in short doses. It provides relief here from McComb's much more intense style. Tarrilup Bridge is a suicide note. The body count is really beginning to mount up by now and I'm not just referring to unfortunate chickens.

"Packed my bag
Left a note on the fridge
And I drove off the end of the Tarrilup Bridge.

Now you read about me in the papers
They say I'm going to be a big star
They're making a movie about my life
And you're going to play the starring part."
It's worth stating again that McComb knows his fiction, particularly American fiction,  and also, I imagine, his cinema. At various points there are echoes of Steinbeck, Hemingway and Fitzgerald in his writing. Here I'm reminded more of Film Noir (something like Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice) and the pulp fiction of Chandler, Cain or Hammett. There's not much more to the lyric than the lines I've just quoted and for the most part the music carries and conveys the atmosphere. It's heavily laden with shuddering sound effects. The song poses as many unanswered questions as an actual suicide. It doesn't particularly go anywhere like his best stuff does. Still, it's a change of pace, which I'd say is what the album requires here.  
Perhaps it's just a well we've had a breather because the next two tracks are absolutely the emotional core of the record. And Joseph Conrad and cliche fans will be delighted to know that it's a heart of darkness in every respect. Andrew Mueller, the Australian born music journalist writes very well about this album on his website. He states here that
"There are parts of Australia you could drop a medium-sized European country on without hitting anybody. To drive the roads that lace these empty immensities is to confront an enormity of landscape, and a concomitant insignificance of humanity, difficult to explain to inhabitants of the northern hemisphere."
The Triffids attempt to do so here. Lonely Stretch, the closing track of Side One describes the moment when you know you are more hopelessly and irretrievably lost than you ever imagined it was possible to be. The Triffids have driven off the road into utter darkness without the remotest hope of ever finding their way back. 
"Land was so flat, could well have been ocean
No distinguishing feature in any direction"
"without another living thing in sight
Without another living soul in sight."
I've always been at a bit of a loss with this particular song because I don't have the emotional data to understand the wilderness The Triffids are hurtling through here . The only reference point I could make when I was listening to it the other night and trying to understand where it was going was to Ian Curtis. I have to confess that I've never thought of McComb and Curtis as similar writers or singers before but could hear some connection in this song; there's certainly a protracted howl in pitiless darkness here that Joy Division obsessives would recognise. I can only shrug my shoulders and leave it to Mueller again as he  understands better than I ever will the emotional and physical terrain described here :
 “Lonely Stretch” is a staggering study of white-line fever, exuberantly declaimed by McComb. He is, once again, a man gone mad, gone driving, gone bush, going nowhere: Behind him, The Triffids summon a five-minute opera in several acts, sounding in some respects like The Band, The Velvet Underground and The Birthday Party, but mostly (still!) like nothing else you’ve ever heard. As it builds to a frenetic crescendo, there’s a palpable sense of an accelerator foot pushing to the floor, and hands lifting off the steering wheel. “You could die out here,” roars McComb, “of a broken heart”.

'I took a wrong turn, I took a wrong turn
I hit a lonely stretch
Rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham
Guide me back to the bosom of Abraham
So high can't get over it, so low can't get under it,
So wide can't get around it, I took a wrong turn,'

Wide Open Road has been called the Australian Born to Run a few times. I've got some time for Springsteen but this is not on. It does the track, McComb and The Triffids an enormous injustice. This song stands alone. It's one of my very favourites and my favourite in one respect in that it's the song that best describes life to me. Life as an open road is not a particularly difficult idea to understand or identify with or take on as an expression of your existence and it's been used by novelists, painters, poets and musicians and people who are none of those things as an expression of theirs. The Triffids do it best for me.

The sounds of the organ which we hear first always sound to me like dawn breaking. I play it a lot in the morning as a result. Though come to think of it, I play it a lot at midday, in the afternoon, early evening and at night time too. McComb's whispered '2,3,4' set the tapes rolling, the drumbeat starts pulsing and it's not at all fanciful to describe this as life beginning. There. I've done so! It's with the opening lyrics and the responding drum cracks though that the whole thing really kicks off.
                                                 "Well the drums rolled off in my forehead
                                                   and the guns went off in my chest
                                                   Remember carrying the baby for you
                                                   Crying in the wilderness"

From this point on it's got a momentum that it never loses. It's about love. It's about loss. It's about hunting something down. It's about pain of the sort that someone with a background in divinity can best describe. It's about an elemental, burning landscape under a big and empty sun that tells an essential truth that your god will provide you with precious solace when everything else has spun out of control. It's about obsessive, compulsive desire and our restless need for one another to provide meaning, contact and love. It's about the next day starting and then the next after that. The seamless flow of days and weeks and months and years  For me ultimately it's about the redemption provided by the closing line 'and now you can go any place that you want to go.' I've identified with it when I'm overjoyed. I've done so when I'm despondent. And also in despair. I always find it indescribably empowering. It's The Triffids defining song. It has a good claim to be Australia's defining song. It speaks best for itself.

As a postscript it's worth pointing out that this got to Number 26 in the UK Pop Chart in 1985. As far as I know The Triffids weren't granted a Top of the Pops appearance. Meanwhile, it reached Number 64 in Australia.

After these two incredible moments all The Triffids need to do is maintain the pace. To me this is exactly what the second song on this side, Life of Crime, does. It a high quality track in itself exploring further the territory and themes that McComb has laid out previously. It's describes country love gone to the bad and reminds me most of Terrence Mallick's remarkable film Badlands which shows a couple of killers on the road in the Depression era Southern states..As Mueller suggests it veers into Nick Cave territory which is perhaps why it's not such a firm favourite of mine. It's all getting a bit intense for me under the sun. The air out here is pretty thick. I think I'll go inside.

Because of Born Sandy Devotional's incredibly clear sense of time, place and mood it always seems apparent to me where and when each song is set. In the morning, in the middle of the day, in the evening or at night, by the sea, in the fields, in the outback. Personal Things, the following track, seems to be the only song here that takes place indoors. As with allowing Jill Burt to sing Tarrilup Bridge, this provides needed relief for me.

The theme is still intense. The narrator is rooting endlessly through the personal possessions and trinkets of his lost, loved one. Where she is now remains unclear. Has she left him or is she dead? Has he killed her and found himself a new place of residence? I'm not sure if he's even of this world himself anymore. The place where he is seems to be purgatory wherever it is geographically.

Some secrets of love you take to your bed and there's
some that you take to your grave. Well I took mine
to a new address, where I took my rest, at the end
of the day.
This was one of the songs I immediately identified with on hearing the record when I was nineteen . It was easy to digest and like musically. It whispered The Doors at me and as someone who owned all six of that band's studio albums already this made it made it instantly palatable and lovable. I stand by the way I felt then. 

Incredibly at this late stage The Triffids have one more straight ace up their sleeve still to play. Another completely show stopping set piece that bears honest comparison in terms of scale with either Lonely Stretch or Wide Open Road and for me pretty much anything written by anybody else too. At least anything I've heard. It's Stolen Property. Fourth song, second side. I'm quite sure this might be many true devotees of this record's favourite moment. It might be my sister's for example. Here, lyrically McComb does something he's never quite done before. More than anywhere else on the album I get the sense that he's directly speaking to the listener from their record player.

 In terms of major influences on his writing I'd suggest Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen perhaps Johnny Cash. Dylan, for example is all over the naming of the album. He's also here in this track in the sustained accusatory condemnation, I assume directed towards a woman (maybe someone who's spurned him), of somebody who sees themselves as a player, as worldly, but who for McComb isn't really engaged with what he sees as the essence of life. Somebody who is not going forward or in fact going anywhere at all. Someone with no place to go. The greatest crime of all. A life unlived. Again, I'm going to have to quote at length to try to fully show what I'm getting at here:

'You just lie around waiting on a signal from heaven
Never had to heal any deep incisions
Darling you are not moving any mountain
You are not seeing any vision
You are not freeing any people from prison
Just an aphorism for every occasion
As if the only thing that ever matters
is your place at the table
You never read the writing on the label
when you drank from the bottle
It said Keep Away From Children'
   For me this is writing of a completely astonishing skill, insight and emotional sensitivity. It takes some inspiration from Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone or Positively Fourth Street and I'd really say that this is the level that McComb is operating at here. The rest of The Triffids keep pace with him with an understated but note-perfect support. It's about our given duty to play a part. To earn our place at a table worth sitting at (clearly not the table the woman is concerned with) and never take it as given.  Never to wait for the final judgement. Because it happens every day. That's Albert Camus, not mine I'm afraid. We don't require a signal from heaven to do these things. It's down to us and it's our mortal responsibility to stay engaged.

Just saying this would be enough but McComb is still not done. The woman is banished  'she can't hurt you now... she don't belong here anymore.. learning the hard way' and the song seems to be winding down. But out of nowhere McComb comes striding back in full preacher's mode declaiming .'Pick yourself up! Hold yourself up to the light!' The idea that even the object of the song's withering contempt and judgement can be reclaimed and redeemed. Words fail me.

It must have been difficult to decide how to close this album. There's been so much intense emotional turmoil, violence and blood-letting already that to try and top it or go to the places where it had already been would have been a mistake. The Triffids are far too smart for that. Tender is the Night is the closing song and it's elegiac, a word you'll find in any good dictionary, and offers the hope that's needed although it's a hope that's hard won and uncertain. Once again McComb gives it to Jill Burt although he duets with her towards its end and here she has something much more complete and fully realised to work with than she had on Tarrilup Bridge. She makes good use of it
The fact the title is borrowed from the name of a Scott Fitzgerald novel is not an accident at all for me. There's much of the beautiful doomed youth of Fitzgerald's fiction to the story told here.
'Surrounded himself with shiny things
First night tickets, ermine, pearls upon a string
And disappeared in all the pestilence
that sudden pleasure brings

He never asks after her anymore
He made a point of losing her address
And every trinket that she ever touched
he keeps locked away
And just burns up In the furnace of his chest
This reminds me so much of Tender is the Night the novel and what I took away from it when I read it first for my A levels. It could almost be the characters of the book. Dick Diver and Nicole and possibly Tommy Barban who Nicole eventually leaves Dick for. At the end of the novel Dick ends up giving a hugely public display of making the sign of the cross on a crowded beach on the French Riviera after Nicole has left him, a sign of his impending emotional breakdown. I'm sure this is something McComb would have appreciated fully when he read it which I imagine he did given the use of its title here. It's how people use each other up when they're young, or even not so young, one might discard the other but both carry their love for each other within them forever. Here the female narrator is with someone else in the song, far away from the person she's describing to him. 'I left him. And I can leave you too. Baby let's go out tonight..' But she still carries the memory of the one she loved before. He will always be the first.
 'It's getting dark earlier now.
But where you are it's just getting light.
Where you are it will just be getting light.'

(This is an alternative version of the song to the one that appears on the album)
So that's Born Sandy Devotional. It's inhabited me since I decided to listen to it and write about it on that beautiful, sunny afternoon we had last Saturday. I've acted otherwise as well as I could. I've got up, gone to work, functioned in that respect as well as I was able because I have a certain internal protestant work thing going on, interacted with people I like and trust and those I'm slightly more wary of. But inside me Born Sandy Devotional has been spinning and my internal mechanisms have been alert to their utmost because I've wanted to do justice to this. Because it matters.
The album didn't sell that much when it was initially released but was almost universally praised. The band signed to Island Records as a result of this acclaim but the records that were released after this didn't match up in any respect. It pains me to say so. There are certain songs I'd point interested parties towards; Bury me Deep in Love, Trick of the Light, Hometown Farewell Kiss, Only One Life, Goodbye Little Boy. Any of these songs could have slotted into Born Sandy Devotional and not been overshadowed and actually improved the album further in some cases. But the band lost momentum and split.

Much of the group sloped off to nine to fives. Fair enough. I do nine to five myself. Less than ten years later though McComb himself was dead. The circumstances of his decline and death were deeply upsetting  and  depressing whichever way you choose to scrutinise them. I don't want to go into it here.  Like Cobain and Curtis he clearly meant it. The Triffids have recently reformed and continue to tour with guest singers but this is something that's beyond my understanding because The Triffids without McComb upfront makes no earthly sense to me. Good as they were as a collective McComb was their guiding rudder and reason for being. They won't and this won't be forgotten!

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