[25 February 2014]
The Jezabels The Brink tempts me to perform the one cardinal sin of music reviewers and judge an album for what it isn’t, rather than for what it is. I’ll try not to give in, but the music on The Brink comes so close to connecting with this reviewer that I feel I’m letting it down by not meeting it halfway. You may feel differently, of course, but it’s the powerfully blended swirl of sound created by these talented musicians that ultimately scuttles the potential impact of these songs. At the risk of implanting one of last summer’s worms back into your ears, the music is full of blurred lines, and it’s crying for some clean edges.
Australia’s Jezabels bill themselves as “intensindie”, and a look at their—certainly promoter-penned—Wiki page uncovers the descriptors “indie, alternative rock and disco pop”, “Bronte-esque gothic”, and “a twist of ‘80s power-house rock”. I know promoters and the press tend to get a bit breathless when creating labels to describe sound, but they’ve pretty much nailed it here. The Jezabels are all this and more. Singer Hayley Mary has a commanding soprano, and it’s at home in this echoey blend. But there is a flaw in The Brink‘s formula. Keyboards fuse with U2-like guitars, pounding drums merge with tracks, melodies weave in and around the instruments like a caduceus in a way that appears enticing but reveals an unstable foundation under too much weight. Mary’s voice and a lot of these lyrics seethe with pain, regret, and anger, but they’re often denied breathing room in the filled-to-capacity mix. Sometimes a song emerges triumphantly, but more often, it drowns. Even if the sound appeals to you—and it is appealing—taking in the album as a whole can be exhausting.
Take “The Brink”, a bold opener, emotional and driving. But as Samuel Lockwood’s jagged, reverby guitar lines form a wall with Heather Shannon’s keyboards, as Mary’s melodies soar and dive through the chords, it all just feels so dense and foggy. It isn’t until the outro, when Mary’s wail becomes clear (“never falling in love again”) that we finally get a sense of what’s going on here, but our connection is academic, not visceral.
“Time to Dance” continues the lament right off the bat: “Great coat, I love that hat / Maybe that can bring my passion back.” The intensity drops a bit as some understated acoustics help drive the song, but the reoccurring clatter threatens to overpower the emotion. Don’t get me wrong, there’s good stuff going on here: noddy grooves, rich guitars, punchy keys. Lockwood, Shannon, and drummer Nik Kaloper work hard to create arcs that follow the emotional drive of Mary’s delivery, but the perpetually danceable racket borders on oppressive. You keep wanting them to pare it down, back off a bit, and give Mary her spotlight.
When they do just that, the mixture works. “Angels of Fire” nails it. The loops, keyboards and guitar clash, creating the edgy menace that allows Mary’s vocal to shine. Her Kate Bushian high notes have a chance to resonate as she slams out some pointed lyrics (“I’m getting old and bitter / show me some love”). “No Country” settles into a more relaxed melody, a good base for some complex thoughts and a deeply intriguing chorus. It’s nice to hear a song unafraid to do some good old-fashioned purging that’s reminiscent of Pete Townshend’s Chinese Eyes days.
But then the formula returns. A dance beat, a serpentine melody, an overspill of beautiful noise, a brief breakdown, everything all at once, and we start yearning for anything to create a different mood, to demonstrate the band can utilize negative space. Again, the songs are admirable enough on their own. I should highlight “The End”, a standout with high-minded imagery and palpable emotion, but as a whole, the connection is lost. The Jezabels direct their catharsis inward. We’re not allowed to share. Check out “Psychotherapy”, which should touch us with lyrics like “I know what you’re reaching for / like members of the last of a dying land / gone forevermore,” but Mary’s head voice starts to blend with the drippy beat and arty cacophony until it ends up just sitting there, out of reach. And the closer, “All You Need”, tries to lighten the mood with lovey-dovey lyrics (“It seems a blue sky is dawning / Every single morning”), but things remain just as dusky. An uncertain synth solo and sampled-string breakdown recall the Postal Service, but they don’t lend a lot of credibility to the romantic mood.
This may be good news to some readers. After all, the songs on The Brink are as dark and challenging as they are danceable—no easy feat. It’s hard not to fall under the Jezabels’ spell for a while, but repeat listens only highlight how the dense, layered approach holds the music back. The Jezabels are a talented collective, but I find their latest set half as compelling as it could have been. The Brink remains grounded when it should soar.