Everything is everything, according to the old saying. The only thing that matters is time. This is certainly true in physics. Nothing can be created or destroyed. It can only change forms. Therefore, the oxygen particles that Aristotle inhaled could now be part of Snooki. Who knows? It depends on time (and in this case, place). But while we all understand the importance of time, Australian singer songwriter Kate Miller-Heidke makes it the latent topic of her songs. If you scratch the surface of what she’s singing about, you will find time is the great revelator.
But, ahem, before we get ahead of ourselves, perhaps some background is needed. First, Miller-Heidke is a star in her home country with a number one hit that went double platinum. (This new album debuted at number two in Australia.) Along with her husband and co-writer Keir Nutall, she made history as the first Australian act to win the prestigious International Songwriting Competition (based in Nashville) whose judges included Tom Waits, The Cure’s Robert Smith, Neil Finn, James Mercer and Ray Davies. Still, Miller-Heidke is largely unknown in the United States.
The most striking aspect of Miller-Heidke’s performance is her rich voice. She recently starred in John Adams’ controversial opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, for the English National Opera in London. When she opens her mouth, she can hit the high notes and hold them as long as she wants with impressive results. However, she is not just a show-off. She can also sing in a whisper with each word clearly enunciated and steeped with attitude. It all depends on the song. While Miller-Heidke would be a major talent just for her singing ability, she is also a first rate songwriter (with her husband) who understands how to serve her material for great effect.
This brings us back to the original topic—time, the secret that lies behind Miller-Heidke’s lyrics. The surface concerns could be anything from a missing girl, a lost love, Halloween night, or death itself. Yet the subjects themselves are dynamic; re: a girl who went absent returns with no idea where she’s been; the dead’s presence can still be felt in every day objects, and so on. There’s a dialectic, but no synthesis.
The best moments here feature Miller-Heidke trying to control time. For example, on “Ride This Feeling”, the singer notes her present joyous state. She knows it can only be ephemeral, but she basks in the emotion and sings symbolically of taking off all her clothes and flying with arms spread. Miller-Heidke captures the way one’s feelings can color other ones. That being happy in love is more than being happy in love—it means one is happy! One can ride that feeling and not let anything be a bother. The fact that ecstasy is short-lived is also part and parcel of its bliss.
Or consider the Zen-like poetry of “The Tiger Inside Will Eat the Child”. “The minute you think you know got it / is the minute you know it’s gone for a good”, she sings in a sweet and lilting voice. The paradoxical notion that awareness leaves one unaware, and vice versa, is actually a good thing. Her vocals suggest the tiger inside a person is as important as the inner child.
Miller-Heidke also deals with the more mundane elements of life, such as international travel (e.g., “I’m 35 hours and three bad movies away / and if one more person coughs on me / I’m gonna punch them in the face”). As one who has taken the slow trip from Iowa City, Iowa to Mullumbimby, New South Wales, I can sympathize. This is when time becomes a drag on one’s consciousness. She points out other examples of time weighing on one’s hands when a lover has left or a child has disappeared.
There are times on the records when the songs themselves can drag, such as on the overwrought “Humiliation” and the ponderous “Let Me Fade”. The songs allow Miller-Heidke to parade her vocal skills, but they lack subtlety. However, songs like these are easily outweighed by the pleasures of the other material. There may be some bumps on the ride Nightflight, but if you are looking for intelligent and imaginative music, the trip is well-worth the time it takes.
// Notes from the Road
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