I don’t often do this anymore but at the same time I don’t get caught up in a piece of art these days the way I have with these albums and this band.
My disclaimer is that I have long loved the music made by Dan, Matt and Tom. It resonates a little deeper inside the folds of my brain than most music and taps into something that I often can’t articulate within myself. But that’s not going to stop me now attempting to do so with these two albums. My apologies to the band if these opinions run contrary to theirs. Discourse is not my intention. It’s just the unknotting of thoughts that are here…
I remember it was around 6pm and the last of the day’s hot light was peeling the colour from the wooden floorboards of the gallery space we were standing in on Brunswick St, Fitzroy. It was February 26th 2012 and Tom was explaining to me in detail the demise of The Nation Blue (TNB). It was over, done and packed away. Eleven years since I had first seen them live and the fight was gone, there was nothing more to do than to go sit by the river with a jug of water and wait.
So when a dear friend told me a year later that TNB might be back I was happy but cautious. Had that conversation been simply the feeling on that one-day or would this resurrection only last one or two gigs? That caution to not get my hopes up lasted through seeing them play again, through seeing posts on the internet for more gigs, from them even telling me there were new songs and playing me rehearsal room demos. I didn’t want to get my hopes up that the emotional impact of their music could be a new feeling again – as strong as the first time I saw Tom and Matt swing their instruments with unbridled abandon as a sprawling lock-jawed crunch of chords tore through the room.
When I finally did get a hold of the albums Black and Blue, I immediately put digital files on my ipod as one whole album – all 28 songs. I have been listening to them like this since. I know they are two albums but songs are chapters, albums are novels and I just wanted one epic Cormac McCarthy styled ride into the wild! So far no regrets with that decision.
I did spend the first few listens (as you would expect) comparing new albums to old, new songs to familiar favourites and waiting for the build ups and breakdowns that made me love TNB in the first place. A lot of what I expected and wanted I didn’t find… and after a while I stopped looking, started listening and only then did I hear that emotional and sonic heft that made me love this music! The band I have listened to for years, one once full of youthful angst, the one that matured that angst into a bristling naked aggression over several albums – that band has here morphed again. These songs are woven with politics, personal introspection piercing contradictions but hidden inside all the swelling emotions and between the caterwauling of words is one recurring truth – that shit is hard and we don’t have the answers to so many big problems and our friends don’t too. We’re all trying to make things less painful, we’re all trying to love and the frustration of never doing enough can grind us down.
Apparently these two albums have a slightly different feel about each of them. I don’t hear it. What I hear is songs that burst through like frustrated rage, some petering out, some running out of steam once all has been said and some that end like the song can’t even be bothered finishing itself. I hear ragged notes and choruses like throbbing gravel rash where once it would have been a stabbing knife of guitar strings. I hear feedback that howls like unarticulated words in your head that you can’t ever push hard enough into your mouth. I hear raw songs deliberately left raw. Emotions wound taught – a desperate confusion where once burned anger! How do I keep my children safe? How do free people end up in concentration camps? How do I make my escape? How did everything get so fucked? I don’t hear the call to rebellion that makes people and society into some utopia – I hear of good people, stumbling around in the middle of the night trying to figure out how to simply do what’s right… and I connect with that.
Black and Blue proves to me one primary thing. That is that people change, they get beat up, beat down, promoted, fired, become parents and suffer loss. Life has an inexplicable way of grinding you down to dust and as I get older I can’t help but feel that life is as much an act of survival as it is changing the world for what you think to be better. I hear echoes of that sentiment throughout these albums.
Does Black & Blue sound tired though? No. There’s an abandon, a giving up that can only give way to something new. Sometimes it’s in a songs structure, sometimes it’s right there on the surface. When I hear ‘Tired’, ‘Wild’, ‘Nil By Mouth’ or ‘Rotten’ I don’t want to know the actual meaning, it only takes a few words to find the connection between what I hear and what I feel. The fact that it makes me feel means the songs job is done. The bands job is done. For a moment I am a little less alone inside my head. ‘Black Light’ exemplifies this for me. As Tom screams “here on my own”, it’s a howling silence that often I can’t articulate but I take his and make it my own. It doesn’t matter if the songs makes me punch the air in elation, punch a wall in frustration or simply hold my face sitting alone on the couch as tears and snot drip through my fingers.
In the end it doesn’t matter how music, songs or an album sounds. I (for one) only care about how it feels. If it makes me feel more than my daily existence does then I will come back to it, I will increase the dosage as much as allowed and I will make it my own. As for this music, I want it to cripple me, I want it to make me want to take on the whole damn world and I want it to always remind me how emotions can burn white hot! The Nation Blue do this for me. The albums Black and Blue do this for me and as I become more comfortable inside the songs, lead breaks, guttural tones and rhythmic propulsion I am coming to think these albums could very well be the best this band has ever made! I believe that – not that I’d ever have the balls to tell them that to their faces.