Review by Ben Connolly
Within seconds of the first chords of AWOL, the lead track off Augie March’s return opus Havens Dumb, one thing is abundantly clear: just how large the Augie March-sized hole in the Australian musical landscape had become.
In just five short years, the band’s ‘hiatus’ had all but slipped into that permanent mode many seem to become; save for an ambling solo album from frontman Glenn Richards, a few non-descript side-projects from other band members and a couple of choice late-night Facebook rants, the band had seemed to slip by the wayside.
This was not to be, thankfully, as the band who was almost entirely without peer during its height, and singularly without imitation in its absence, secretly convened in Richard’s new Tasmanian studio and set to work on its fifth long-player.
The result is an album full of the delicious contradictions fans have come to love over the group’s two decades: at once sprawling and cloying; sparse one moment, then densely rich the next; atmospheric and deeply claustrophobic in equal measures.
The second single, Definitive History, is a case in point. It begins with a haunting whistle and delicate undertow, the lyrics a study in introspection. It gently builds as the protagonist reflects on his worth in the world and its fleeting significance. Before the soft blanket of self-pity is fully rolled out, it sharply turns into a diatribe on modern society, centred on a brutal murder of a Chinese woman at the hands of two men. It ends with a repeated chorus desperately imploring us to take a good hard look at the society we’ve let ourselves become.
It’s a repeated refrain throughout the album, in as much as the typically linguistically wrought lyrics can be deciphered (the band’s own Youtube channel has helped greatly, with expertly-produced film clips with lyric-sheet overlays). Themes of time passing and age-inspired reflection abound, although thankfully with less dark overtones than Definitive History. Lead single After The Crack Up and Bastard Time are both shining lights.
Musically it differs little, aside from cosmetic and extremely subtle nuances. The first half of the album is rich with melodic pop hooks, even though they seem to be self-consciously swallowed prior to achieving full flight. The second half is operatic and seemingly lifted from a classic movie soundtrack. Amidst it all, the only downside is a paring back of Edmondo Ammendola’s often arse-tearing bottom end which previously whacked songs into shape. Along with it, drummer David Williams’ flashing personality has had its wings clipped, but this has cleverly allowed the multi-instrumental quirks of Kiernan Box to shine through.
In all, those who devour Augie March and its vexed position as the poster boys of intelligent pop in Australia will see this as a welcomed return to their roots.