There’s an old story about Gareth Liddiard relocating to Australia’s east coast after growing up in the west. His band mates in The Drones came in tow, first to Sydney, then to Melbourne. Living in caravan parks, sleeping on dirty mattresses, drawing the dole. Drugs and drink. Playing shows whenever, wherever. The veracity of this whole tale and its individual parts may be questionable, but by now it’s come to signify his single-minded pursuit of musical success – find the audience, no matter the cost.
During the first half of the 2000s, The Drones eked out an existence and a reputation in their adopted city. They soon outgrew the conservative blues-rock scene in Melbourne, garnering attention for Liddiard’s lyrics and the band’s audible links to noisier, stranger music. For a while, critical praise for The Drones far exceeded popular interest. That’s because, in part, Liddiard has a strong attraction for writers – be they critics or songwriters. Long, enthused articles were penned in the street press and indie mags, like Mess + Noise, well before there was a knowledgeable readership. Early audiences were heavily weighted with other musicians. But broader interest in The Drones reached its first peak with ‘Shark Fin Blues’, a devastating rock song with a nod to Coleridge, a Hemingway reference and a slug of Melville, too: ‘The sun pours my shadow upon the deck’, ‘I see the sharks out in the water like slicks of ink’, ‘The captain once as able as a fink dandy / He’s now laid up in the galley like a dried out mink.’
That song, which matches finely turned lyrics to a rousing chorus, was awarded J Mag’s Best Australian Song of All Time in a 2009 poll of 70 songwriters. An odd but telling honour, indicative, nonetheless, of the faddish nature of these things – and Liddiard’s own gravitas. The Drones album it came from, Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By, also won the inaugural Australian Music Prize. Their follow up, Gala Mill, saw Liddiard’s repute as a songwriter grow as he delved into colonial Australia. Today, stained mattresses banished, the band plays big theatres and sells them out, particularly in Melbourne. Liddiard’s intensity onstage with The Drones is famed within the music scene: wreathed around his electric guitar, wiry arms reaching for the whammy bar, notes responding with a plunge, a groan, then a pop of his eyes.
But for all the increased attention, Liddiard’s songwriting has remained resolutely dense: popularity doesn’t seem likely to tame his style. Now he has released Strange Tourist, his debut solo album. It’s a 67-minute sprawl of an LP with only nodding acknowledgement of verse-chorus-verse structures. Liddiard is on his own, spinning out wordy stories for the record’s entire length. A lonely high-plains mailman. A tightrope walker’s besotted understudy. A comfortable middle-class family. A wartime collaborator, peddling soap in Avignon. A travelling man imagined as a bowerbird, turning a bird-bath black, the story of his wanderlust and search for home – Nagasaki, Timor Sea, Madrid, Georgia.
The final track, running for 16 minutes, is called ‘The Radicalisation of D’. It’s a steady decant of details from the life of a radicalised suburbanite. Liddiard’s guitar pulses on a two-note blues cycle until its loud conclusion. The suspended motion of the guitar through the first 10 minutes holds attention, drawing us to the tale. The song escalates slowly, before rising to its final climax, a lacerating indictment of local and international politicians, media and culture. At its close, the story has shifted from third person to the second person (‘you are living in a world …’). Accusatory. Paranoid. ‘The Radicalisation of D’ catalogues the slow creep of alienation and disaffection.
The protagonist here of ‘Radicalisation’ – who Liddiard claims, both is and isn’t David Hicks – steps through the purgatories of the underclass, the ‘baked beans on white Tip Top’, the violent bust-ups between friends. The image of dawning anomie is one of boredom, making your own fun.
But it isn’t sociology in a song. In interviews since the album’s release, Liddiard has said that some of the stories come from his own childhood. What’s more, anyone who grew up in Australia’s middle and outer suburbs can recognise themselves. It implies this question: how does a pissed-off kid end up in the Balkans or Afghanistan – and not middle management at Telstra? Or, as Liddiard says of it, why does whitey do the naughty?
This is characteristically weighty stuff for Liddiard. There’s little left to feel good about by the end of Strange Tourist. From private jealousy to privatised unemployment schemes, the homely and the public are equal fodder. In a Liddiard song, all is interrelated: the homely seethes with public tensions, and the public is coloured by private dispositions.
Liddiard has made this topicality a calling card – and this approach has made Liddiard a singular and respected figure within the local scene. But backlash may yet come. With the release of Strange Tourist, the nascent negative reaction to what Liddiard does is directed at the wordy, ‘literary’ nature of the songs. Music’s meant to be fun, isn’t it? Escapism, fantasy. Not a book on tape.
I would make a different case: Strange Tourist is compelling precisely because Liddiard is delivering a short novel’s worth of lyrics against his unorthodox guitar. He is a singular guitarist – heavy on the attack, filled out with scratchy, fumbled, tumbledown notes. But the familiar intensity of The Drones is now of a different order. The result is often just as visceral, but the lyrics are more finely turned.
Liddiard’s no stranger to sharp character studies, having populated each of The Drones’ albums with desperate tales. The intimacy of Strange Tourist, however, produces starker stories. The quieter approach affords him detail and clarity that is hard to achieve with the band’s predisposition to noise. In The Drones, atonality and feedback can convey meaning in itself, sketching in those ineffable affects, purposefully weighing the songs down – as in ‘Jezebel’, a track that joins the dots from strontium-laced milk in Queensland to Daniel Pearl’s beheading with appropriate, thundering horror.
In the bare settings of Strange Tourist – acoustic guitar, voice and open fire – lyrics create that foreboding. In ‘The Radicalisation of D’ and Strange Tourist, the words accumulate over the songs’ long durations. Reality becomes grotesque, phantasmagoric; a fragmentary selection of details from a biography f lickers into dun-coloured horror. Whether it’s nineteenth-century tightrope walkers (‘I’m not here because he’s tall, I’m only here to see him fall’) or a high-plains mailman (‘he labours like a shadow across the meadows of the moon’), Liddiard plunges into each milieu to find something there worth relating.
The lack of irony in Strange Tourist can make Liddiard seem oldfashioned. He has no truck, as he sings here, with ‘music made by millionaires for car adverts’. The album’s explorations are compelling for their integrity. Strange Tourist finds Liddiard in the role of author as explainer and documenter of the world. The whole album is marked by an ardour for storytelling and a quest for meaning.
Incidentally, the most comparable contemporaries to Liddiard are also from Melbourne: Glenn Richards and Ned Collette. There’s probably an argument that Richards’s prolix songs with Augie March over many years helped cultivate the Triple J audience for someone like Liddiard. And recent Collette efforts have shared with Liddiard an attempt to understand our contemporary political and cultural malaise: his Over the Stones, Under the Stars album was just as condemnatory as Strange Tourist, and equally thick with words – ‘lyrically despotic’ was how Collette described the songs.
Inevitably, Liddiard and these other songwriters are working in a tradition involving Bob Dylan – there’s the rattling surrealism and humour, for example. But just as apt in the case of Liddiard are Van Morrison and Elvis Costello. There’s the wild-eyed, manic intensity of the young Van Morrison (the Morrison of Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece, that is, not the tamed blue-eyed soul wonder of wedding dances and Dad’s cover band). And there’s the bitter, fire-spitting of Elvis Costello in his first decade – as on Blood & Chocolate, where his postdivorce angst is channelled into something exceptional and fervent.
Liddiard shares with them all a distinctive voice, in both the sonic and writerly senses. In transcribing lyrics, what you can’t get down onto paper is the way Liddiard snaps his voice around certain words, lunges at others. His accent borders on strine at times, while at others he wafts up into a parched falsetto, ghosted by notes he can’t reach. This modulation is part of what makes Liddiard a good storyteller, and perhaps what he has over the others: the ability to sustain a story.
There’s enthralling dramatics in the delivery: lines rarely end neatly, often folding over and falling across the measures. It’s not the stuff of a ‘singer-songwriter’ to be put in a corner while the nice folks eat their squid-ink risotto. The whole thing sounds hot-wired, six strings f lapping and buzzing, the blues at its most dissonant. The smooth rotation through blues progressions is interrupted by atonal notes and chords. The playing is often rude and impolite, ranging over unconventional scales, half-busted – it sounds instinctual, streamof-consciousness, drawing its energies and drive from that rambling chromaticism. It hovers between the brittle and muscular; wavering on the brink of collapse or eruption. From the guitar playing, there’s a release of uncertainty, tension and anxiety into the song. The words and the guitar push and pull against one another.
At times, Strange Tourist’s songs fire off and move with the pace of internet browsing – the spirited and half-distracted advance, clicking links, opening new tabs, finding more information and more and more. ‘Strange Tourist’, the title track, is partly steered by a Google Image Search of Aokigahara, a Japanese forest.
‘Insatiable’ is a worn-out term, but it seems to capture the spirit of Liddiard’s constant search for new subjects to write about. On stage, particularly when he plays solo, Liddiard can ramble with striking erudition and humour. Explaining his songs and their origins, he’s aware of just how mad he can sound. After one such weighty, wry digression at a solo gig in Northcote last year, Liddiard joked to the crowd that we should imagine what it’s like for his partner Fiona to live alone with him in rural Victoria. ‘No one else around, just me,’ he said while making crazy eyes at the audience. You get the feeling, after spending time with Strange Tourist, that Liddiard is more than enough people to have around.