Andrew Mueller is a journalist and author whose books sell badly enough to keep him in journalism. He also does things on the radio, and plays in a country band sometimes.
The Triffids' "Born Sandy Devotional"
THERE are parts of Australia you could drop a medium-sized European country on without hitting anybody. To drive the roads that lace these empty immensities is to confront an enormity of landscape, and a concomitant insignificance of humanity, difficult to explain to inhabitants of the northern hemisphere. Much Australian art has tried to describe this remoteness, and complete successes are unusual. Only two Australian albums have truly dared stare back into that awesome emptiness: Midnight Oil’s “Diesel & Dust”, a global hit in 1987, and The Triffids’ “Born Sandy Devotional”, which sank with little trace in 1986. This re-release, accompanied by nine b-sides and demos (including the title track, which didn’t make the album) is the first in a series of Triffids reissues. While all those will be worth having, The Triffids never got better than this – but nor did anybody else, much.
It isn’t coincidence that the two definitive albums of Australian dislocation appeared in the late 1980s: at that time, the approaching duocentenary of the British invasion of the continent in 1788 was inspiring fervent navel-gazing in all media. Midnight Oil went for the grand themes, the dispossession and genocide on which their country had been founded. The Triffids, holed up in London, looked back across the planet and focused on the tiny stories, the disregarded, deranged people adrift out there – The Triffids were, possibly, thinking slightly of themselves. The six-piece from Perth – the most isolated major city on Earth – had released one unrealised album (“Treeless Plain”), and two mini-LPs (“Raining Pleasure”, “Lawson Square Infirmary”). They had a decent critical profile, and a reputation as a potent live band, centred on singer/songwriter David McComb’s impassioned performances. What they needed was a record that redeemed the promise, and in “Born Sandy Devotional” they dug a dazzling treasure out of themselves.
It’s all there in the non-hit single, “Wide Open Road”. It begins with a dim buzz of keyboard and a shuffle of electronic percussion, like wind whipping sand against a radiator. McComb counts in “two-three-four” in an unmistakably Australian accent, before clanging guitars ring in his yarn of an abandoned lover, driving anywhere as long as it’s away. “Wide Open Road” is a desolate Antipodean inversion of the raging American optimism of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run”. The bitter drifter narrating McComb’s song, like Springsteen’s New Jersey tearaway, also has a burning heart inside and an empty highway in front, but where Springsteen thinks of the road as a tarmac rainbow, leading to a pot of gold or some equivalent thereof, McComb knows there’s no destination, no angel named Wendy waiting on her porch.
Though desperately intense, “Wide Open Road” is, in the context of “Born Sandy Devotional”, a mid-album comedown. The first thing to confront the listener, the unintroduced opening lines of “The Seabirds”, are a deceptively elegant, but aggressive, reminder that you’re not from round here, and you don’t know what you’re getting into: “No foreign pair of dark sunglasses,” warns McComb, “will ever shield you from/The light that pierces your eyelids.” The music that follows McComb’s stentorian voice into the speakers is also indicative: it’s as panoramic as the views McComb’s lyrics are contemplating, while somehow as claustrophobic as a cold car on a wet night. “Estuary Bed”, “Chickenkiller” and “Tarrilup Bridge” – the latter a stark suicide note, crooned by keyboardist Jill Birt with creepy blankness – accelerate the momentum into the album’s, and The Triffids’, finest moment.
“Lonely Stretch” is a staggering study of white-line fever, exuberantly declaimed by McComb. He is, once again, a man gone mad, gone driving, gone bush, going nowhere: “Land was so flat, could well have been ocean/No distinguishing feature in any direction.” Behind him, The Triffids summon a five-minute opera in several acts, sounding in some respects like The Band, The Velvet Underground and The Birthday Party, but mostly (still!) like nothing else you’ve ever heard. As it builds to a frenetic crescendo, there’s a palpable sense of an accelerator foot pushing to the floor, and hands lifting off the steering wheel. “You could die out here,” roars McComb, “of a broken heart”.
The rest of “Born Sandy Devotional” is a succession of aftershocks: the gentle, rueful “Wide Open Road”, the Cave-ish country of “Life Of Crime” and “Personal Things”, the knelling epic “Stolen Property”. The sign-off, “Tender Is The Night”, delivered in Jill Birt’s plaintive lilt, is a gorgeous I-can’t-be-with-the-one-I-love-so-I’ll-love-the-one-I’m-with lament. At the end of this most Australian of albums, recorded in London, it sounds as homesick as it does lovesick: “Where you are,” sighs the last line, “it will just be getting light.”
The Triffids, like contemporaries and compatriots The Go-Betweens, became famous only for failing, despite a scrapbook bulging with ecstatic reviews, to become famous. They released two further albums, “Calenture” and “The Black Swan”, then in 1989 took a temporary break which became permanent. The band’s members embraced middle-class professional life, aside from bassplayer Martyn Casey, who joined Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, and McComb himself, who recorded with The Blackeyed Susans, and made one astonishing solo album (“Love Of Will”, now outrageously deleted). McComb lived as hard as the characters he sang through; he underwent a heart transplant in 1996, and died in 1999, aged 36, from complications related to the operation.
In that short life, David McComb assembled an astonishing body of records – but “Born Sandy Devotional” is the one most resembling the monument he deserves.