Dave Faulkner re­views the al­bum of the year

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Em­pire be­gins with two dis­tinc­tive sounds. A church bell rings, ac­com­pa­nied by the low whirring of a bull­roarer. Are the bells tolling for a funeral or merely sound­ing the hour? And what of the bull­roarer, Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralia’s orig­i­nal bush tele­phone? Is it warn­ing of im­pend­ing dan­ger or is it the ac­com­pa­ni­ment of a sa­cred rit­ual?

In its first few sec­onds, Wil­liam Crighton’s “Fire in the Em­pire” jux­ta­poses two an­tique meth­ods of com­mu­ni­ca­tion from two dif­fer­ent Aus­tralian his­to­ries: one white, the other black. Are these voices in op­po­si­tion or har­mony? The an­swer comes im­me­di­ately when a steel gui­tar anx­iously strums and Crighton be­gins to sing about an apoc­a­lyp­tic clash of cul­tures that he wit­nessed in a dream:

I was out where the straight road ends

Red dust rises, muddy river bends

I laid down on the sand

And fell into a dream

The earth and crow ap­peared

With a beak of eyes

Filled with iron tears

Fire in the Em­pire

I saw tall ships

Blood on the wat­tle

There was a baby buried to her neck on the bank

The wa­ter ran red as a white man sank

Leaned for­ward and kicked off her head

It’s a grisly vi­sion of unimag­in­able bru­tal­ity, made even more jar­ring by the ba­nal de­noue­ment Crighton paints in the next verse:

Now there’s old Coke cans

And fi­bro homes

Cat­tle roam on an­cient bones

And last night by the Bo­gan River

I saw a black snake coil and the South­ern Cross shiver

This is strong stuff. The mu­sic con­stantly boils and seethes un­derneath, a vor­tex of dis­torted gui­tars, ghostly voices and dis­em­bod­ied sounds that fi­nally erupts in a burst of fevered drum­ming. In a state of alarm, the singer yells, “Fire in the Em­pire!” and the mu­sic reaches its night­mar­ish peak. As the sound ebbs away, all that re­mains is the tolling bell.

After such a fu­ri­ous be­gin­ning, the al­bum’s sec­ond song is a respite, find­ing so­lace in com­mon hu­man­ity. The cheer­fully ram­bling “Let Love Come First” may be short and sweet but there’s steel be­neath its sen­ti­men­tal­ity, as Crighton ad­vises, “When you’re bleed­ing out / You’ve got to let love come first.” Dark­ness and light are min­gled through­out Em­pire, a dy­namic that plays from one song to the next in the track list­ing.

I in­ter­viewed Crighton a few weeks ago and, in per­son, he cuts quite an im­pos­ing fig­ure. Raised on a farm in Ardlethan, south­ern New South Wales, he’s a tall, strap­ping bush­man, who looks as if he can han­dle a real axe as eas­ily as the six-stringed va­ri­ety. “I was pretty straighty,” Crighton told me. “I grew up pretty Chris­tian and I didn’t know too much about any­thing.” Raised on church hymns and Johnny Cash, Crighton be­gan to dream of a life be­yond the farm. “I al­ways knew I wanted to pur­sue mu­sic but I didn’t know how.”

The fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­tian­ity of his child­hood shows up in Em­pire’s next song. “Devils Tongue” is a fire-breath­ing di­a­tribe that ques­tions no­tions of faith, ob­jec­tive truth and credulity in a me­dia-sat­u­rated world. There are ref­er­ences to a lake of fire, the

Gar­den of Eden and some­one who claims to have held the bones of Christ. Totemic images of an­i­mals also crop up: a crow, a lizard and a black cock­a­too. When I in­ter­viewed him, Crighton ex­plained the ori­gin of his sur­real im­agery. “A lot of these songs come from dreams that I have.” I sug­gested that, taken as a whole, his lyrics seem to in­di­cate that he doesn’t be­lieve in any spe­cific de­ity. “That’s ac­cu­rate,” he replied. “I have faith in us.” Nev­er­the­less, he still has great re­spect for his fun­da­men­tal­ist grand­mother. “She was a lovely woman,” he said. “She al­ways was pretty true to the words of

Je­sus, which, if you be­lieve the words in red, I don’t know whose words they are, but they’re pretty good words.”

The mu­si­cal back­ing of “Devils Tongue” gal­lops un­derneath while the singer charges for­ward like a man pos­sessed. A few min­utes in, the fran­tic pace eases as the drums re­lax into half time then, a lit­tle fur­ther on, the time sig­na­ture halves again and the band stretches out for an ex­tended jam. In­stru­ments and sounds go in and out of fo­cus in the mix, mak­ing this a com­pan­ion piece to “Fire in the Em­pire” son­i­cally as well as spir­i­tu­ally.

After the hot-blooded ag­gres­sion of “Devils Tongue”, “Hap­pi­ness” acts as a salve. It’s a jovial jig that shrugs off ques­tions about the pur­pose of ex­is­tence, posit­ing that in­sects are just as qual­i­fied as hu­mans to pro­vide the an­swer.

Crighton’s own search for ful­fil­ment took him to China in 2005. At the age of 19, he was re­cruited to sing for a blues group started by an Aus­tralian ex­pat liv­ing in Bei­jing. Later, the singer moved to Nashville and for the next seven years he tried un­suc­cess­fully to es­tab­lish a mu­si­cal ca­reer in Amer­ica. Without re­al­is­ing it, the raw coun­try boy was gain­ing a price­less mu­si­cal ed­u­ca­tion. He re­treated back to the Rive­rina dispir­ited, only to dis­cover his true song­writ­ing voice. The songs be­gan pour­ing out and, in 2016, ABC Mu­sic re­leased his self-ti­tled de­but al­bum, Wil­liam Crighton, which at­tracted rave re­views. After 11 years, Crighton had be­come a clas­sic “overnight suc­cess”.

He still wasn’t sat­is­fied. Since then, his song­writ­ing has con­tin­ued to de­velop and so has his sound. The ge­nial alt-coun­try of Wil­liam Crighton has be­come the un­ruly rock of Em­pire. It’s not as big a shock as Dy­lan go­ing elec­tric but it’s def­i­nitely a bold change of di­rec­tion. Most im­por­tantly, Em­pire is an artis­tic break­through and I fully ex­pect it will be seen as one of the best Aus­tralian al­bums re­leased this year. It’s cer­tainly my favourite so far.

The next two songs form the cen­tre­piece of the al­bum. “Mr Brown” and “Sad­ness” have a hint of baroque pop about them, par­tic­u­larly the first of the two. “Mr Brown” de­picts the sort of pe­cu­liar char­ac­ter that shows up in the songs of Ray Davies and pre-disco Bee Gees, es­pe­cially in the lat­ter’s song from 1967, “New York Min­ing Dis­as­ter 1941”, a song Crighton says he’s never heard. Mr Brown is en­gaged in the fu­tile ex­er­cise of stock­pil­ing re­sources while the world ends, not recog­nis­ing that his fate and the planet’s are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked. Un­for­tu­nately, there are many rich peo­ple, cor­po­ra­tions and their po­lit­i­cal en­ablers who have Mr Brown’s ex­act mind­set.

“Sad­ness” ap­proaches folk-pop, based as it is around del­i­cate ukulele fin­ger­pick­ing. An ana­log synth dances nim­bly around the melody dur­ing the cho­ruses while som­bre horns and a clar­inet gently mur­mur in the back­ground, in an ex­quis­ite ar­range­ment.

The pro­duc­tion of the en­tire al­bum is in­spired. A lot of credit must be given to pro­ducer Matt Sher­rod, who also plays all of the drum parts and some of the key­boards. Crighton’s friend­ship with Sher­rod was one of the more en­dur­ing lega­cies of the time he spent in Nashville, and Sher­rod has played a cru­cial part on both of the artist’s al­bums.

In fact, the con­tri­bu­tions of all the mu­si­cians on this record are imag­i­na­tive and con­sid­ered, in­clud­ing that of Crighton’s wife, Julieanne. As well as be­ing a co-writer of some of these songs, her back­ing vo­cals add a unique qual­ity wher­ever they ap­pear. Crighton is jus­ti­fi­ably a huge fan of her work. “She can do things with her voice that I’m al­ways in awe of, and I’m not just say­ing it be­cause she is my wife,” he says. “She’s like a theremin … It’s like an op­er­atic thing ... some­times it’s like punk, like Iggy Pop with a higher voice.” The pair have been to­gether since Crighton was 21 years old and Julieanne was 18, and she was with him for all the ups and downs of the United States so­journ. “Yeah, she’s been through ev­ery­thing, for bet­ter or for worse. So it’s def­i­nitely been a roller-coaster for her.”

There’s a song named for her to­wards the end of the al­bum, but Julieanne also fig­ures strongly in “Morn­ing Song”, which comes just be­fore it. They’re both heart­felt paeans to love and fam­ily, and their pres­ence en­riches Em­pire enor­mously. “Morn­ing Song” is the one track on

the al­bum that comes clos­est to care­free joy­ful­ness.

This is a morn­ing song for you

To make you feel bet­ter than you do

This is a morn­ing song, hey hey

I wrote it for you

Don’t look at the morn­ing news

Let me share the weight with you

Come out and feel the sun

I wrote a song for you

“Julieanne” comes next, and Crighton’s play­ful, dark hu­mour ad­mits that their re­la­tion­ship isn’t all do­mes­tic bliss:

You’ve threat­ened to kill me


But I don’t think you will

And I’ll love you ’til the end, Julieanne

That last line would have made a great end­ing for the al­bum but Crighton has one more trick up his sleeve, a sim­ple mas­ter­piece called “Some­one”. The lyrics are a roll­call of hu­man be­hav­iour. Some of these mo­ments are pro­found, some are mun­dane but ei­ther way, Crighton lists them without judge­ment.

Some­one’s fallen in war

Some­one’s pre­par­ing for love

Some­one’s walk­ing out the door

Some­one can’t get enough

Some­one got up off their knees

Some­one got down on their luck

Some­one needs more than a fuck

Some­one’s im­pos­si­ble to please

I like Crighton’s lyrics so much that I find it hard to re­sist the urge to print them in full, but this is the fi­nal stanza:


Some­one’s deep in re­gret

Some­one’s get­ting on the gear

Some­one’s in a cold grave

Some­one’s get­ting out of here

The fi­nale of “Some­one” fea­tures the vo­cals of Gawurra, the Yol­ngu singer from Milingimbi Is­land in north-east Arn­hem Land with his song line about a cock­a­too, fly­ing and ob­serv­ing. This aligns per­fectly with the al­bum’s run­ning theme of totemic an­i­mals but, more im­por­tantly, Gawurra’s voice con­nects back to “Fire in the Em­pire” at the be­gin­ning of the al­bum, demon­strat­ing the sur­vival of an an­cient cul­ture in the face of un­be­liev­able ad­ver­sity.

I said ear­lier that Em­pire is my favourite Aus­tralian al­bum of the year thus far but I think that may be un­der­selling it. This is the best al­bum I’ve heard this year, from any­where. At 32 years old, Wil­liam Crighton has many years of cre­ativ­ity ahead of him but as far as I’m con­cerned his song­writ­ing needs no fur­ther im­prove­ment.

I’m ea­gerly await­ing a whole lot more of it.

DAVE FAULKNER is a mu­si­cian best known as front­man of Hoodoo Gu­rus. He is The Satur­day Pa­per’s mu­sic critic.

Wil­liam Crighton per­form­ing at Blues­fest.

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