Hailing from Western Australia, the Triffids sound something like a cross of two of their mid-1980s Aussie compatriots, the Go-Betweens and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (which Triffids bassist Martyn Casey would later join). On this album (produced by Gil Norton, who would become famous for his work with the Pixies) the band integrated a steel-guitar player with guitar, violin, and keyboard and conjured a wide-open atmospheric sound that counterbalanced the claustrophobic lyrics of singer-songwriter David McComb, who here seems largely fixated on betrayal, loneliness, death, suicide, and other such cheerful topics. (McComb would later die after a car accident and subsequent drug overdose in 1999.)
Like an antipodean Stan Ridgway, McComb spins noirish tales from a first-person perspective that invite comparison to short stories even though they unfold in evocative fragments. Born Sandy Devotional‘s first track, “The Seabirds”, is a perfect example, opening straightaway with the Didionesque line, “No foreign pair of dark sunglasses will ever shield you from the light that pierces your eyelids or the screaming of the gulls”. Over sweeping steel guitar licks and punctuating string flourishes, McComb relates the story of a man planning to drown himself in the ocean, interspersing it with gruesome imagery of birds picking carcasses on the strand and climaxing with an encounter with caustic, nameless strangers in a seashore motel who castigate him for his drunken futility.
That’s followed by the album’s most inviting song, “Estuary Bed”, which also conjures up the seaside, but in nostalgic and picturesque tones. What the repeated tagline “Sleep no more, sleep is dead” means, however, remains open to interpretation. “Wide Open Road” tells of a man tracking the lover who deserted him, cutting his friends and family off “like limbs” as he goes, and “Stolen Property” is both a slow-building admonition to an absent lover who is “just an aphorism for any occasion” and to the singer’s own uncooperative heart, either of which may be the object to which the title refers.
But as nuanced as his lyrics could be, there’s nothing subtle about McComb’s vocal delivery, which is booming, declamatory, and deadly serious in every instance. He has a deep, full-throated croon, similar to Nick Cave’s, but unlike Cave McComb doesn’t always modulate it so as to avoid the pomposity and inadvertent Jim Morrison parody such a voice can suggest. “Lonely Stretch”, which opens like an outtake from Springsteen’s Nebraska, telling of a night drive to nowhere, builds to a foreboding sha-la-la chorus reminiscent of the Sisters of Mercy, and the overplayed dread grows maudlin and undermines the menacing mood the band seemed to be shooting for. If McComb’s voice has its shortcomings, that’s nothing compared to keyboardist Jill Birt, whose thin, tuneless, and bodiless voice detracts from every song on which it is discernible. Her lead turns on “Tarrilup Bridge” and “Tender Is the Night” ruin otherwise compelling songs, and her harmonies on “Chicken Killer” do nothing to help the unfortunate chorus: “Here he comes, the chicken killer again”.
Nevertheless, Born Sandy Devotional works well as an entire album; the weaker cuts support the stronger ones even if they can’t stand alone. They sustain the melancholia while throwing the better songs into heightened relief, making playing the album in its entirety feel like a well-rounded, complete experience. Such experiences are becoming rare; with sales-by-the-song services and expanded reissues repeatedly coming out, no one worries too much about the integrity of an album as a whole. Hence, this Domino reissue includes nine bonus tracks—some worthy enough (“Time of Weakness”, “Convent Walls”), some sounding unfinished (the title track, “White Shawl”, “Wish to See No More”), but all obviously were excluded originally for a reason.
Still, the experience of Born Sandy Devotional is not one you’re likely to want to have every day, but on that day when you want to be carried away to a fully imagined place where emotions are a little more desperate and extreme, when you want your desire to escape dramatized in romantic terms without losing any of its complexity or ambivalence, you’ll be glad to have this.