...Miracle of rare device / A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice
Luke Steele’s back with Sleepy Jackson’s second album, and from the outset you know this is going to be comment-worthy: the complete title’s Personality: One Was a Spider, One Was a Bird; and the cover art is the most flamboyant you’re going to see all year, an explosion of colour and pageantry around a Luke, dressed all in white, with Malcolm Clark, the band’s drummer and (at this stage) its only other permanent member, bare-chested in his arms.
Sleepy Jackson’s 2003 debut, Lovers was a wonky pop gem, smiling with the sun-kissed space of Perth—in Steele’s words, his attempt at a “perfect pop album” and it came fairly close, from the unexpectedly melodic “This Day” to summer hit “Miniskirt”. True, the glammily experimental Steele took some chances that didn’t totally pay off (the mumbled under-the-influence rant “Fill Me With Apples”, for one). But if you were expecting more of the same from the band you’re in for a shock: trading slide guitar for Brian Wilson harmonies, and undertones of the influence of pot to massively vivid hallucinatory psychedelia.
All this talk of multi-tracked, falsetto-heavy vocal work is going to bring up the Sleepy Jackson’s new debt to Brian Wilson, and it’s true; but the music somehow retains its individuality. In part, it’s due to Steele’s voice, which if you’re being unkind could be described as childish and nasal, or if you’re more positively inclined as fragile and communicative. Steele allows this quality to shine less bright than on Lovers, but when it does—as on “Miles Away”—it can be genuinely affecting. His cracking voice isn’t to everyone’s taste but it’s calm and sad as he laments “I couldn’t tell you why I was so cold with you there”.
To match the album’s broad-stroked sound there’s a supporting cast of Aussie rock royalty in droves. Kim Moyes and Julian Hamilton (in another life they’re the Presets) play vibraphone/percussion and piano/keys respectively on the majority of the tracks; Davey Lane, guitarist from Oz rock legends You Am I plays guitar, as does Jim Moginie from Midnight Oil. Finally, Daniel Johns (Silverchair’s now-ethereal singer) contributes backup vocals to “Play a Little Bit For Love”. These are more than cameo appearances—they don’t appear in the press releases, are just acknowledged in small print at the back of the CD booklet—and these talented musicians contribute everything to the album’s sonic palette.
What elevates Personality above pastiche is an uncompromising dedication to the “sound” the record establishes. Sonically it’s unmistakable—all highs, no lows; no bass, all string melodies, multi-tracked vocal harmonies rising to infinity, and threaded through it all like the milk of Paradise is Luke Steele’s distinctive voice. The album opens with a strong series of tracks that work to establish the record’s characteristic sound; thereafter, Steele is free to explore around the edges. “You Needed Me” is at first alien lushness but underneath, all Sleepy Jackson, a pretty and swirling linkage between what was before and what’s about to come; “Devil Was in My Yard” passes by too quickly—it’s not until the second or third listen you hear each layer, the gorgeous melody uncovered; and “God Lead Your Soul” is an obvious first single, the up-beat perfection of Personality’s personality, with its echoing brass chorus and characteristic rhythmless swoop of a verse.
In the album’s second act, a calmer, more intimate side of the band emerges. More laid-back ballads “Don’t Say” and “God Knows”, and the aforementioned “Miles Away” offer a hint of throwback in the direction of Lovers. But the tone of the disc as a whole is sunny and up-beat, and the disco beat of “Play a Little Bit For Love” (the only time on the disc that the contribution of the Presets is almost audibly felt) seems a natural fit for the record’s overall mood. Personality then comes full circle with a rousing couple of closing tracks that take the sensibility of overt orchestration and apply it to an almost Broadway sensibility of spectacle. The colouring of the album screams Baz Lurhmann, but it’s really only on “Dream On” and “How Was I Supposed to Know” that it’s brought to the fore. Both tracks are flamboyant and undeniably fun, but the closing tune is perhaps slightly more successful, a perfect combination of rattling percussion, guitar-strummed melody and the now easily recognized elements of Steele’s orchestral visions.
In the end I’m thinking of this album in terms of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn”. The brightly coloured hallucination is punctuated by exclamation marks; its imagery is obvious and even repeated; and its meaning is so wrapped up in its self-absorption and ego that it is sometimes entirely unknowable. But despite all this there’s a rich vein of beauty in the words, and its appeal is wide and steady. Luke Steele’s Personality is, really, much like this: stepping past the idiosyncracies of the personality that hovers over this project like a colossus, the Sleepy Jackson have produced another album chock full of sparkling moments. Like that great poem, this album’s a thing to be gradually discovered and eventually treasured.