The Drones 'I See Seaweed'The Drones
I See Seaweed
"I like things being elliptical," sings Gareth Liddiard about halfway through the Drones' first record in five years, and as ever, he's delivered a collection songs that just beg to be studied and agonised over for years to come. There's a wealth of meaning to be unpicked from I See Seaweed's eight labyrinthine songs. The first thing you notice is that they seem to represent another watershed in Liddiard's writing: the songs on Strange Tourist (and Havilah, for that matter) tended toward lyric narratives, recounting the tales of characters clearly separate to their creator. By contrast, the songs before those records tended to be first-person and deeply—sometimes uncomfortably—personal. (We're talking about a man who wrote a song called "She Had an Abortion That She Made Me Pay For," for Chrissakes.) The lyrics here combine both approaches, and add another: several songs are written in the second person, addressing a "you" who could be some unnamed deuteragonist, or the listener, or both. The conceit is made most explicit in the closing "Why Write a Letter That You'll Never Send?", which presents itself as a letter sent to Liddiard by "a friend," although whether this is actually the case or a lyrical device is something only the writer himself knows for sure. In general, it's the songs that take this approach whose meaning remains the most elusive — the title track, for instance, which goes straight into the pantheon of All-Time Great Drones songs despite what it's actually about remaining entirely open to question.
Still, not all the songs are entirely impenetrable: "Laika", as its title suggests, takes the forlorn story of the dog the Russians shot into space in 1957 as a starting point for a lyric that deals with the atavistic nastiness of humanity. "The Grey Leader" is a portrait of political cynicism and self-delusion that recalls REM's "World Leader Pretend" — the identity of its subject is left to the listener to decide, but it's tempting to see the song as an indictment on the Howard years (such songs being all too rare in Australian music, sadly.)
Liddiard's oft-underrated sense of humor is on full display here, too — like several other great Australian songwriters (both Nick Cave and Rowland Howard spring to mind) he's got a wry turn of phrase that often gets lost in the intensity of his delivery. The title track contains a glorious, razor-sharp depiction of jetset alienation ("It's prefab bars, tax free cigars/ Stopovers in Bahrain/ And they put horse tranqs in the fuel tanks/ And the staff are all insane"), while "Nine Eyes" gives us the immortal line "What kind of arsehole drives this lime green Commodore?"
In any case, The Drones' singular genius is how they render these dense, complex, challenging tracts into songs that are both intense and also — crucially — full of melody. This is something that's always set The Drones apart from any number of other punk-influenced bands that boast intense singers and loud guitars: take the na-na-nas of "Shark Fin Blues" or "The Best You Can Believe In," for instance, or the slithery guitar figures of "Luck in Odd Numbers." Even the band's most unrelenting tracks have melodies you can holler in the shower, and so it goes here — aside from perhaps the blistering "A Moat You Can Stand In", this album's "Baby Squared" or "I Don't Ever Want to Change," the songs are as melodic as they are coruscating.
And in "Why Write a Letter That You'll Never Send?", the band create something completely new, a sound entirely without precedent in their back catalogue — it sets Liddiard's vocals over a tinkling late-night piano as if he's some sort of latter-day barroom balladeer, an antipodean Tom Waits. (The song also makes perhaps the best use the band have made yet of Fiona Kitschin's perpetually underrated backing vocals.) It builds intensity as it goes along — you suspect that Liddiard couldn't read his shopping list without it getting progressively more intense as it gets to the fruit and vegies — but then exhales slowly, receding into a coda that finds Liddiard singing a cappella and doing so in a manner that can only be described as... gentle. Who'd have thought it?
It's over a decade years since Liddiard and the band first headed over east, a decade that's seen them rise from living in a caravan park to being rightly acclaimed as bona fide national treasures. And here's the unlikeliest thing of all: they're still evolving and developing, still getting better. Indeed, there's an argument to be made that this is the best thing they've ever done, and how many bands can say that about a record that comes 11 years after their debut? Enjoy this while it lasts: bands this good, and writers of Liddiard's calibre, don't come along very often. Not at all.