Earlier this year, Drag City reissued early albums from Venom P. Stinger, Mick Turner’s punk band with fellow Dirty Three member and drummer Jim White. The songs seemed both from another time, one long forgotten, and the feral forefathers of Turner’s work as a member of Dirty Three and his solo records, among other projects. What becomes clear in hearing those jagged tunes is this: Turner has been doing this for a long time, and like his painting, he’s been building his sound one unruly swirl at a time. The end results, though smudged, are somehow both rock solid and still malleable, and that combination of constant shift and foundation sturdiness is at its most strange and vital on Don’t Tell the Driver.
This is being called a rock opera, or a post-rock opera, but if that second term is accurate it’s because this is not the sweeping arcs you’d expect from other post-rock acts, instead it’s a piece that moves like a whole, but cracks the structures at every turns. It’s past what rock operas do. It doesn’t need to try and tell a story. It doesn’t need to be linear. It just drifts, song-drunk and tilting through 11 tracks in nearly an hour.
It also puts Turner out in front in a new way. In Dirty Three, his guitar is this sweat-coated thing that lets the dust of Warren Ellis’s violin stick to its surface. Here his guitar sounds more like the shuffling unpredictability of Jim White’s percussion. It groans out edged chords on “All Gone”, but it also sways through rundown riffs. On “Long Way Home” it carefully etches out space between snare hits, between throbbing bass notes. On the title track it thrums, nothing more than the creaky floor below the ringing pianos and the layers vocals of Caroline Kennedy-McCraken and Olivia Mann that haunt the space. But then it comes to life, both frustrated and free in solos that butt up against harmonium bleats.
The clashing of instruments, the grinding together of elements, is what makes Don’t Tell the Driver work. It is cohesive but always falling apart. Bells and tambourines rings at odd intervals like Marley’s chains, rendering otherwise mud-clumped and earthen moments otherworldly. A sweetly low, operative voice in mid-album epic “Over Waves” is countered with banshee yelling in the distance. The drums, on “Over Waves” and elsewhere, are like an ebbing tide, each crash seems just a bit further away than the last. At least until they come back, and bring a storm with them.
Turner’s unpredictable guitar work here is of a piece with the other elements in these compositions, but the ruffled imperfection of it all is quite beautiful in its difficulty. You may find it hard to pin down a moment, a riff, a line sung by those beautiful voices, and yet the album is transfixing. You might pin down the intricate cymbal work on “The Bird Catcher” as a brilliant counterpoint to Turner’s Ellis-like groaning solos. You may love the chilling horns that fill up the stillness of “Gone Dreaming”. You may revel in the warm, syrupy textures of bittersweet closer “Last Song”. These are all moments of puzzling and (thus) rewarding musical bliss. And on a more uneven album, they would be huge highlights.
Or perhaps it would be on a more even album. For as much as a listener is bound to get lost in this space, it is never one we settle into. Turner is too busy pulling up those floorboards, burning off the wallpaper he just laid, using the window instead of the door. “Don’t tell the driver,” the women sing, “we’re not going home.” But why they’re not, and where they’re going are questions that are never answers. Instead we’re left to follow the wobble-legged travel from one not-quite-destination to the next. This isn’t a story, but it is a setting. This isn’t rock opera, this is rock architecture. The kind where nothing ever gets finished, but how it tilts or folds in on itself is where the amazement lies. The cover art, done by Turner, is fitting. There’s people on the beach, far off, and there’s a space between them. We don’t know why. We can’t get close enough. Maybe we’re the third person, so lost in the brush they might blend into it. Or maybe we’re exactly where we should be. Puzzling through these beautiful shifting songs, looking for shreds of blueprints Turner tore up and threw out long ago. Because he’s been building so long he knows how sometimes it’s the breaking that makes for the best construction.