MUSIC: Classic hits
Verlaines' front man Graeme Downes talks about the band's new album and why it may be their best yet.
The first Verlaines album in 10 years kicks off, tellingly, with song called "Midlife Crisis". Elsewhere, there's an elegy for a relationship that's ending after 16 long years, a song in which a cynical parent addresses their sleepy child, and a song in which the protagonist awakes one day to find his "use-by date has expired". In other words, this is an album informed by age and experience. It's an album made by grown men, not angsty kids, though these songs suggest that band-leader and sole original member Graeme Downes remains a moderately angsty adult.
Pot Boiler is the seventh full-length offering from this much-loved Dunedin band and, to my ears, their best in 20 years. Certainly, every Verlaines album arrives with three or four songs so brilliant they make you catch your breath, but they generally contain a few noble failures as well. The last album that felt as satisfying and consistent as this new one was 1987's Bird Dog. While Pot Boiler lacks the aggressive guitars and unexpected tempo changes of that record, it compensates with hard-won wisdom, derived from both the personal lessons life has thrown at Downes and the musical lessons he has learned as an academic and music tutor at the University of Otago.
The songs here are as sly, caustic and tender as always, but they now have a more potent simplicity and the lyrics are more seamlessly integrated with the music.
"To me, the best songs are the ones with the clearest lyrical message," says Downes from his Dunedin home. "But ideally, the emotional nuances of the lyrics and the music supporting those lyrics should be so closely married together you couldn't imagine one without the other. When you reach that level of interrelatedness, you've got a killer of a song."
There are several killers here. "It's Easier to Harden a Broken Heart (Than Mend It)" is one, a sharp-eyed and melancholy character study that draws you in with a minimal bass throb and looped strings and then goes wide-screen on the chorus.
"Don't Leave" is another, a superficially simple ballad that nails something complex and true about the dying days of a long-term relationship. Over a breezy jazz shuffle, the singer pleads with a departing lover to stay with him a little longer, to have another drink because "the party's not over until all the wine has gone". He invites her to dance with him, holding him tight so that she will "feel my heart tremble". He knows, and we know, that she will not stay.
Another pearler is "Real Good Life", in which the narrator talks despairingly about the madness and malice of the world while pledging to be the listener's rock and anchor through good times and bad. It takes a while to dawn on you that this is an ink-black lullaby, delivered by a parent to their child.
Many of Pot Boiler's songs employ Downes' signature songwriting approach: they're profoundly romantic and sharply astringent at the same time. He's always been a master of this sweet-and-sour thing. You hear it in early songs such as "Angela" and "You Cheat Yourself of Everything That Moves" on The Verlaines' first recording, 1982's Dunedin Double EP. It seems Downes disdains sentimentality, garnishing even his most tender love songs with a dollop of spite.
"Yeah, well, I'm entitled to be as cynical as the next guy, I guess. And also, life's like that. Just about everything is bittersweet. It's part of the human condition. One song where that really comes across is `16 Years'. It's a break-up song for people who've been together a long time, which makes it very different from your average teenage break-up pop song.
"It's a complex knot of emotions, really. It's happy, because all the fighting's finally over, but there's also a lot of grief over the wasted years and the lost possibilities, and there's anger, too, because you didn't pull the pin on it quicker. It's difficult, but if a song can capture that multi-faceted combination of anger, irony, sadness and joy, it's a pretty good song."
Pretty good? These songs are excellent: sad, cerebral, sarcastic and wise. Downes is in particularly good voice, too. He doesn't strain at the top of his range like he used to. These days he negotiates his twisting melodies with sure-footed grace, and his voice has relaxed into a reedy mid-range, rich in the kind of vulnerability and nostalgia one often associates with Don McGlashan.
"I've learned some things over the years, I guess. Certainly, I've got different priorities to those I had as a young man. Being in a band's not about conquering America any more, or even touring this country. We've all got kids, jobs, dogs, mortgages or whatever. Our drummer Darren owns a wine business. Russell, the bass player, is a teacher in Balclutha and Paul's a deputy principal in Riverton. So we just meet when we can to rehearse or record.
"But I definitely feel like I'm becoming a better songwriter as I get older. I used to write the music and throw the text at it afterwards, which can give you a real square peg-round hole sound. These days I'm much better at matching chords with ideas. This might even be the best Verlaines record, who knows? That's for other people to say, not me."
Pot Boiler (Flying Nun)
Best in 20 years
Sunday Star Times