100 for 2000 – #31. The Sleepy Jackson – Lovers

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.

2003 – #1. The Sleepy Jackson
(Capitol)

I love this album. I’m so wrapped up in it on so many levels that I had to spend quite a while thinking about how I would approach this piece. This would be one of my favourite albums of the 00s, if not my life. The Sleepy Jackson. And the aptly named Lovers.

There is several things I want to say here.

1) I had a friend named Michael Lock. He was a beautiful man, a wonderful writer and a one of the kindest souls I have ever met. I met him a few years earlier through friends. He was a bit of a hellraiser in his youth, but had moved from Perth to Sydney to get away from drugs and bad influences.

He introduced me to a lot of great music, all that good stuff people are amazed I know at all. I got most of it from Michael. And even though he was older and knew just about every great musician (both locally and internationally) I could ever hope to meet, he and I became really good friends.

The very first band gig I ever played, he was the only friend who gave me some truth, not blind support. Just before he died, he told me that I was in a great band. Sheepishly, I replied to the compliment with something like, well, I’m just trying to be Australia’s Tim Wheeler. I remember, vividly, near the smoke machine at the Hopetoun Hotel, Michael saying to me – you can shoot higher than that. Be the Australian Jeff Tweedy. Or be the world’s Danny Yau. Anyway, that’s probably the best thing anyone has ever said to me.

Michael died just before this album came out. After a long period of being clean, he bought some heroin off some fucker, and went missing for a few days. Michael worked at Red Eye Records at the time, and we had a standing meet up on Thursday nights. I would hang around and we would shoot the breeze about our week, records and whatever. One Thursday he wasn’t there and hadn’t called in sick or anything.

A few days later his body was found in the back streets of Cabramatta, one of Sydney’s dodgiest suburbs. He had OD’d.

A week before that, something that still chills my spine happened. It was the last time I saw Michael. We had been discussing some records – Townes Van Zandt’s Flying Shoes (with No Place To Fall), and Dylan’s Bootleg Series volumes 1-3 in the long box that was hard to get. And out of the blue, one day, he called me up and said, hey, Danny, do you want to buy my copies?

I said sure. I’ll grab them off you next time I see you. No, he said, I can come around right now. I was at my folk’s place in the suburbs – not really near anywhere. He said it’s okay, if I have the cash, he would come now. Strange, I thought, but OK, he said.

I got a call a little bit later, saying to come out and meet him around the corner. Sure I thought, maybe we could grab a coffee or something, I thought. I walked out and Michael gets out of a parked car with some other guys inside. He has the two albums with him. We barely exchange pleasantries, and I give him the money. He thanks me, and gets back into the car and drives away.

To this day I still don’t know if that $40 contributed to the heroin that actually killed him. I thought, wrongly, for a while I was doing him a favour. Right now, in 2009, that few minutes – I can’t think of a single bigger regret in my life. Something was very wrong here.

But I was just a kid. Michael seemed like such a super cool, together guy. How do you say, hey Michael, what’s going on man, when he was the guy who knew everything about everything?

If you look inside your booklet for Lovers, you will see a little post it note for singer Luke Steele. It’s a note saying that Michael Lock called – the two were good friends as well. Luke was busy in a film clip and never called back. He died before Luke could call back.

If it’s okay, I’ll just skip the moral wrap up, about drugs and what happened and what I learnt and all that bullshit. None of it matters. All I know is that the day we heard Michael died, it rained pretty heavily for the next two weeks. I barely left the house.

2) Lovers. This album makes me think of old lovers. Luke taps into something so easily – this brittle romantic thing. He is so open with his heart, and expresses himself so well.

I listened to it at sad times, and I listened to it at happy times. It said the words I couldn’t. So much about girls, about loneliness, and that very particular heartbreak felt by over sensitive boys with a pop slant. Good Dancers, This Day, Don’t You Know – my heart was wrapped up in all these songs.

When, in your twenties, and you’re listening to all the love songs, and you’re just getting to grip with what love even is, all that confusion was on this record. And, when it came to love, these years were fucking confusing times. I’m not sure if this album made it better of worse.

3) The music is amazingly eclectic. I know this was one of the reasons many of my friends did not take to this album. No two songs sound like the same band. But I loved this. Old Dirt Farmer sounds like a 1920s field recording. Vampire Racecourse sounds like the Soft Boys. Don’t You Know sounds like Boz Scaggs. A friends daughter sings Morning Bird.

This is such a brilliant album, and such a brilliant album to have in your early, confusing 20s. It’s still an emotional listen for me. But ultimately a happy one.

Top 10 of 2006: 6. The Sleepy Jackson – Personality – One Was A Spider One Was A Bird

6. The Sleepy Jackson – Personality – One Was A Spider, One Was A Bird


In Barney Hoskins book Hotel California, photographer Nurit Wilde has this to say about Neil Young: “I thought that the ones whose lyrics I loved must be really smart. And I found out that some of them weren’t smart, they just seemed to have some sort of instinctive feel for words. Neil was one of those.” Reading that quote made me think of Luke Steele.

So let’s get right into the meat of it – Personality is a huge album. The name Brian Wilson was bandied about alot in reviews (along with George Harrison). Lots of strings, keyboards, backing vocals, whistles and bells. But it’s all done for emotional resonance, and backed up by some of Luke’s strongest and most coherent songs.

The big title, the big album cover and the big sound actually do too good a job at hiding what are really simple songs and simple, evocative and beautiful lyrics. Like Neil Young, Steele does in very few words what others take albums to do. “I gave you everything you needed/You needed more” says it all, so simply. In one of the album’s highlights – the stunning Miles Away – when Luke sings “I couldn’t tell you why I was so cold,” you don’t have to know what the hell the story is, it’s just a great line of regret. That song, like so many on this album, evokes the soaring ballads on After the Goldrush.

Again, the singles are the strongest songs. God Lead Your Soul and Devil In My Yard are pop classics, the later sounding like later era T.Rex, and far more guitars than a decade of Beach Boys records put together. But it’s the brilliantly titled I Understand What You Want But I Don’t Agree, with it’s nod to Raspberry Beret, that really shows how inventive Steele can be. For all his misses and experimentation can be forgiven for the slices of pop bliss that he finds. No other Australian musician would go so far for a song.

To the charges of overproduction, I will say, yeah, maybe. It’s no more produced than All Things Must Pass, most baroque pop bands (Left Banke etc) or even Beck and Elliott Smith. It’s lush, but it’s hardly symphonic. And it’s so much better than being a cliche driven four piece, like the oufits that ex-members of this band tend to form. It fits nicely next to Wilco’s Summerteeth and Phoenix’s United.

It’s sad that this album wasn’t a hit like Lovers. It’s possibly better. So much more coherent than that record, Personality should have done for the Sleepy Jackson was Unit did for Regurgitator. Stelle is still the only artist in Australia capable of making something on the level of OK Computer, because he’s the only one willing to go so far, and so loudly.

Detractors can stay in your fucking little indie band and write your fucking little indie songs.

Danny Yau
London