Havens Dumb, Augie March’s first studio album in six years, opens with an uncharacteristically forthright song about the anxieties of fatherhood. Over a fifteen-year career, lead singer-songwriter Glenn Richards has developed a distinctive lyrical style grounded in visual evocation. Biography rarely seeps through, and when it does, it’s often wilfully misleading. So on opening track ‘AWOL’ it is jarring to hear Richards knowingly describe the redundancy of middle age, and the intimate specifics of a night in with his kids. The lush, acoustic waltz that builds to a crescendo behind the vocals is classic Augie March, but it’s obvious that Richards is in a significantly different place to 2008’s Watch Me Disappear. On Havens Dumb, he seems content to speak candidly, and to let his themes shine through without obscuring them behind metaphor and imagery.
Not that this should come as a surprise. The band’s lengthy hiatus saw Richards move from Melbourne to Hobart, where he is now raising a child, working outside the music industry, and maintaining a home recording studio. This personal and professional departure from the band’s hectic touring schedule and unexpected ‘One Crowded Hour’ fame was bound to have an effect on his output. The band also attained a long-sought after separation from Sony BMG, the creatively oppressive record label they ended up with following a mid-2000s merger. But while his sensibility may have changed somewhat, Richards’ literary approach to songwriting remains firmly intact.
Richards’ style of songwriting, which is heavily informed by poetry and history, is what has made Augie March’s work so distinctive. Australian indie music has a long association with literary allusions (Dick Diver, The Go-Betweens, and The Triffids are all named after books), but Augie March have never seemed merely referential. Literature has ingrained itself into their entire ethos. From 1999’s Waltz EP onwards, their output has been characterised by an ornate, almost Germanic lyricism, a poetic temperament somewhere between Dylan Thomas and Seamus Heaney, and an erudite attention to Australian history.
On major label debut Moo, You Bloody Choir (2006), songs like ‘Mount Wellington Reverie’ recount stories of escaped convicts at Van Diemen’s Land, and the genocidal attacks of the first European settlers. In one chorus, an unnamed convict laments the loss of his family (‘So many souls, so many souls in the water / I left me a little daughter’), and in the next verse coldly describes the slaughter of Tasmania’s Indigenous population. Accompanied by the hushed, melancholy patter of the band, the song raises a difficult question: how can humans develop complex attachments with one group of people, and treat another as subhuman?
On earlier records, such as 2002’s Strange Bird (generally considered their strongest album), Richards’ lyrics were more complex and labyrinthine. Even a breezy folk ballad like ‘Sunstroke House’ harboured lyrical density:
‘Wagner and wife, drama and strife,
their syphilitic friend Dionysus
is wise not to ask: O, where’s Sunstroke House?
Where’s a crow on the far fence,
Where’s a mill by the pond?’
The allusions here are so arcane, and buried beneath evocative imagery, that you’d forgive a casual reader for being estranged from their meaning. But Richards’ vocal delivery can render even the strangest lyrics fascinating, and his plaintive howl provokes a desire to interpret the truth behind them.
On first listen, the lyrics of Havens Dumb seem more restrained than those of previous albums. The lines of ‘Villa Adriana’ (‘Day’s end comes / bus is leaving / the cats are sleeping / the villa is dark’) seem almost telegraphic when compared to the verbal bombardment of Strange Bird’s ‘This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers’ (‘Pods of wealthy blonde gobbets with their red rind eyes / Getting pecked at by the heroin sparrows of the western skies’). And for all its debt to F. Scott Fitzgerald, lead single ‘After The Crack Up’ is happy to substitute introspection for clipped lines about burning out (‘After the fun / after the freedom / the discipline of married men?’). These songs are not so much a simplification of Richards’ style as they are a refinement of it. Rather than intentionally baffling listeners, or forcing them to decode his songs, here Richards offers his own glints of clarity.
On the doowop-infused ‘Hobart Obit’, Richards balances confessional longing (‘When should I wash the smell of you from my hands?’) with enigmatic biblical imagery to spark a mood of passive dread, befitting a small-town afternoon with no foreseeable resolution. Similarly, on ‘St. Helena’, the dreary selfishness of an afternoon drunk is given a new poignancy by the sense of distance evoked (‘I had to wonder was it you that I was talking to? / With a sea between us, it couldn’t have been us’).
‘Definitive History’ is the album’s centrepiece, a scathing indictment of the contradictions and moral failures at the heart of Australian life. There’s no grand metaphor here, only thinly filtered rage. As he struggles to come to grips with the brutal murder of a young Chinese girl (‘Drowned her in a bathtub / rolled her in a sheet’), Richards sings: ‘“In our own backyard!” / Oh how could it be / with all we’ve taught them?’. The disjointed map of Australia that marks the cover of the album makes sense in this context: Richards portrays a fissure developing between what this country believes itself be, and the reality of what it truly is.
Havens Dumb may well be remembered as the best and most cohesive record of Augie March’s later period. Texturally, it is as lush as The Go-Betweens’ 16 Lovers Lane, and its intricate song structures are even greater than those of Moo, You Bloody Choir or Watch Me Disappear. But even beyond that, the record will cement Glenn Richards’ status as one of the greatest and most unique lyricists Australia is ever likely to see. There may be no shortage of Australian songwriters attuned to literary and cultural history, but to find one so attuned to the way words work against one another truly is a rarity.