How NOT to write about music – 115. Sarah Blasko

Sarah Blasko

This is reprinted (without permission) from The Friendly Critic, but I am sure they won’t mind. I am reprinting it now, not because I expect it to generate vast amounts of traffic on this blog (it won’t) but because sometimes, just sometimes, I write something that I feel proud of, that I can say about go say yeah! THIS is how to write about music (if you so choose). The teaching weeks have started again at BIMM and so I am mindful of my students, the example I set. There is some killer use of hypertext right here, even if I say so.

LIVE REVIEW: SARAH BLASKO @ UNITARIAN CHURCH, BRIGHTON

Gorgeous space.

I’m nervous, forming these words. Sarah Blasko’s music – particularly her gorgeous five-star 2018 album Depth Of Field – has helped me through some stressful times. I was explaining last night that I must have listened to it a hundred times, the soundtrack to keeping tedium away, to hold back tears, to coping with vulnerability, loneliness, awkward silences. A hundred might be an exaggeration, but 50 is not.  The fellow writing the review in The Guardian put it far better than I ever could:

A phantom limb: this is what Depth of Field feels to me right now. Songs like the swirling ‘Heaven Sent’ and beckoning intimacy of ‘Read My Mind’ race around my head like a real friend, or a forbidden lover. I have carried this album almost everywhere with me for weeks now. Whether it is playing through my headphones or not, Blasko’s cajoling, sensational voice soundtracks the inner sadness and mundane reality of the 10.09 train to Guildford. Another half-hour delay? Another chance to listen to Blasko.

I believe the paper may have edited out the part where the reviewer claimed Blasko was awarded an ARIA (the Australian equivalent of the Brits) on the back of his review of this elusive, awkward Sydney icon’s previous album.

I digress.

Gorgeous space, a chapel built in 1820 with a ceiling way up there and shafts of light. The chapel demands attention: not that this stricture is required from Blasko’s devout. Applause lasts an extra 30, 50 seconds for each song – almost uncomfortably so, bearing in mind the spellbound stillness that takes place during the glacial, awkward, beautiful, stripped-back, delicate, slightly melodramatic, haunting, teasing songs Blasko is giving us. Just her and a piano. Just her and a guitar. Just her and a microphone. Just her and a heartbeat.

Just her.

I digress. Shortly after I moved to Brisbane in 2008, I formed a concept band with a couple of future Sex Drugs Rock N’ Roll teachers – The Thin Kids. We were wonderful, frankly. Supported several name bands (The Cribs, Kate Nash, The Deadnotes), toured Australia to bemusement from Australia’s notoriously prickly music press and released two split singles with La Nash. Our first album back in those heady days of 2008 was to be called The Song of Sarah Blasko Performed the Way She Always Intended Them to be Performed. Sadly, it was never to be; but the thought of pitiful me tackling the songs of An Artist Of Such Grandeur kept me awake at night laughing and trembling in equal proportions.

I lie.

I digress.

Gorgeous space. Gorgeous voice, too. Here, have a taste.

She performs this song tonight, just her and a piano and a phantom heartbeat, spilling magic across the awkward silences and empty plains. She sings this song, and the fatigue-destroying ‘A Shot’ – betrayal built into the start of every relationship because you know that deep down you’re not worthy, you’re never worthy of another person’s love – and ‘Leads Me Back’ and ‘Heaven Sent’, and I slip back, thinking of my second-born Daniel (now age 8), the way I needed to talk him down earlier from a high plateau of actualised alienation at his mother’s house and I managed that by having him try and guess my movements during the day. Diversion.

I digress.

“This next one,” she laughs nervously but nerves assuaged, “is about religion so hopefully I won’t get struck down.” She’s packed out the Sydney Opera House before now: tonight, we number not much more than 60 but crucially, it is through her choice. I know where I would rather be.

She moves her hands theatrically to express her sweeps of emotion, the haunting. The beauty.

She takes a little self-deprecating mock-bow at the end of each elongated bout of applause.

Here is my first encounter with Blasko, 2009:

Tuesday affords us of our first live sighting of the charming Sarah Blasko – slightly overwhelmed by the six musicians thumping out an indie beat on violins and keyboards. Blasko comes as sharp relief to the hordes of sweaty, unkempt, Australian Alpha Males grunging the good grunge all around her, rocking the Julie Andrews look in sensible shoes and high-collared black dress with long vibrant strips of colour down the front. (I wouldn’t normally comment on a lady’s attire: Blasko, however, clearly gives thought to her stage presence.) She dances like you’d imagine a Victorian china doll would, minus the preciousness. Her song ‘Hold On My Heart’ is magical, delirious. The backing on ‘Turning Back’ is one part Dr Who, another part Eleni Mandell. There’s a stand-up bass, the mood is vaguely sea shanty. It’s a little bit early Cardigans (it feels delightfully Mod), a little bit latter-day Björk (Blasko can clearly control her voice)… and is that a slight Irish inflection I hear?

It strikes me that Blasko is so much better now she understands her real strength. Herself.

I digress.

My notes state that tonight in Brighton, “she transforms”.

That’s it. She transforms.

How NOT to write about music – 8. The Breeders

The Breeders All Nerve
Hunched over in my tiny own personal space on the 7.47 to Clapham Junction, eyes closed, trying to ignore the brutish commuters walking in desperate search of a seat banging into my tucked-in elbows and nearly upsetting my flask of homemade coffee, headphones wrapped tight round my head, hunched in more, trying make myself so small as to be invisible, retreating further and further inside, so wanting to create a tiny inviolate bubble, I make the decision to play the last Breeders album on my crappy iPhone (battery lasts 30 minutes max). This is a big moment for me. Back in April, a day before my birthday, I wrote a blog entry for The Friendly Critic that I later turned into a song and performed several times on stage, about how I found myself unable to listen to the new Breeders album, how listening to the new Breeders album upset me, how the very idea of being upset by listening to a Breeders album upset me, and how…

I was in a state of shock. I had divorced and moved town eight weeks earlier. I did not know where I was, who I was. I had no context to listen to music within. Hearing a new Breeders album – as deft and skittish and spooky and minimal as it is, as they always are – reminded me of everything I was not. It did not offer understanding, or future directions. Nostalgia can work as a communal experience, not so much in isolation. Hearing the album amid a welter of friends claiming their love for the album served to isolate me further. I was not enjoying the performance of April 2018. I wanted to be anywhere rather than April 2018, listening to the new Breeders album. I removed it as I had removed most everything from my life (music, friends, a home, somewhere to feel comfortable) and carried on regardless. Not because I had to or wanted to, more because I have children.

So, this is a big deal for me. Huddled in my tight corner, trying to avoid the brutish elbows and shoulder bags of my fellow commuters, wanting to retreat into my own special space. Enjoying hearing the new Breeders album. Once again understanding the magic.

Around 30 minutes ago, I trawled through half-a-dozen or more reviews of All Nerve, the Breeders album. None of them mentioned what the album is about. I know what this album is about – how could I not, having my father die after a long period of dementia, having my mother unable to recognise herself, her children or anything around her in an old folks’ home in Chelmsford? How could I not?

It would have been nice to have received back-up, though.

Stopping for one second to praise Josephine’s tremulous ‘MetaGoth’ with its layers of spooked guitar, stopping for one second to wonder why I have not been able to hold on to even one friend over the past few months, stopping for a moment to relish the fact I am listening to the new Breeders album and it is not making me upset, angry or demotivated…

Stopping for a moment to glance at the notice boards outside…

Stopping for just one moment.

I have silent tears creasing my cheeks during ‘Spacewoman’ as my fellow commuters step on oblivious.

“I watch you disappear,” sings Kim. “You have no gravity. How long?”

“I wanna see you,” sings Kim. “Especially you. You don’t know how much I miss you.”

I have no one left to say this next line to me, but I am going to say it anyway.

Welcome home, Jerry. Welcome home.