100 for 2000 – #43. Youth Group – Skeleton Jar

To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.

2004 – #3. Youth Group – Skeleton Jar.
(Ivy League)

I am claiming this one: I was chatting to Toby from Youth Group about the album, and he said he didn’t know what to name it. I suggested Skeleton Jar, the name of one of the songs on the album. Now, I’m sure it had occurred to him. I’m sure it also occurred to others. Still, he said he thought it was a good name and a few months later, there it was – Skeleton Jar. And it was fucking unbelievably good.

Some people hate Youth Group. They have this air of being a Sydney scenester band – which is so weird because the Sydney scenesters hate Youth Group too. None of them look like Lou Reed. None of them have expensive haircuts, or wore black. They probably got a few too many of the good support slots because of their label, but they didn’t manage to ever sell that many records. Anyway, I bring this up because I can’t actually think of many people I know who love this album who are still my friends. For such a big album for me, it was a small album for the world.

There is a sadness on this album, and it wasn’t always going to be that. There had been some line up changes. And with that, some of the fun, Pavement-y, Weezer-y things got lost, in favour of something darker. I was lucky to hear various demos sessions and was surprised as Toby Martin wrote more and more songs, each better than the last. It also meant that some songs I loved a few months ago were bound to get lost.

There was also personal tragedy in Martin’s life, with the recent death of his father inspiring a few songs (only one of which made the record). From this, his songwriting took to a new level. I remember Andy Cassell, from Ivy League, with no sales pitch angle involved, telling me once he just thought Toby Martin was a genius. That was before this album came out, and I was a big fan. I took that comment at face value at the time – but when this album came out I realised what Andy saw.

The collection of strange stories, images and ideas on this album are uniquely Youth Group. And it’s so surprising that these guys I could talk to at the pub about various things, could be so – there’s no other word for it – poetic. My friends bands could be clever, they could be witty – but none were brave enough to be poetic.

The album opens with Shadowland, and great pop thumper. And a great image, of some lost no man’s land, and someone trying to survive it. Later, Toby would tell me it’s about those years when you are just out of high school and you don’t know what to do. I mean, what the fuck. Most people would be literal, clever or funny. Martin came up with a term I still use, and wrapped it in a beautiful painting of chimney stacks, force fields, life coaches and watchful skies.

I don’t know what most of these songs are actually about. One I know least is Skeleton Jar, the title track that was written very late in the game. I do remember a friend of a friend’s mother died. And that first friend taking the second friend out. My friend felt like hell, but her friend felt like dancing. And she told me how, watching her friend in grief but dancing, made sense of some of the words in Skeleton Jar.

There are hundreds of these moments on this record.

I searched through your house for my skin.

She puts on a face. Makes it a brave one.

His lungs are machines, his hands are a fridge.

And it changed the way I saw my world. In the way Dylan changed the way people saw their own words. Trains, buildings, buses, trees, planes – all mentioned in these songs in such wonderful ways. And we shared the same world – this leafy, rustic Inner West.

This album is wrapped up in Sydney. It’s wrapped up in my early 20s. They recorded one more track after the album came out, and they re-released the whole thing with the new song (Someone Else’s Dream). With that, Youth Group managed to make my year-end best of compilation 3 years running (Shadowland was released as a single in 2003). It only hints at how much this band was part of my life in those times.

One last story.

That song Toby wrote about his father is Why Don’t the Buildings Cry. A gorgeous song, where the title comes from being buckled under by such sadness, that you think that, well, the buildings really should be crying as well.

When a really, really big death hit my life, I ran to my music collection for solace. Of the thousands and thousands of useless discs, vinyl, mp3s, whatever – I remember thinking that there was nothing to help me. I put on song after song about death or life or whatever, and turned each one off after a few seconds. My drug had let me down. Although the silence was even worse. No song in the world could take this confusing pain in my head and heart, wrap it into a melody and release it as a song.

Except Why Don’t the Buildings Cry.

I listened to that song over and over again and it got me through that night.

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