The Verlaines' 'Untimely Meditations' is a vital new exclamation on an already storied career, writes DOUG WALLEN.
While leader Graeme Downes remains busy as head of the music department at Dunedin’s University of Otago, his revolving-cast Verlaines haven’t sat dormant in recent years. There have been two Aussie visits in the past two years, plus a pair of albums in 2007’s Pot Boiler and 2009’s Corporate Moronic. Still, Untimely Meditations is their first album since the re-energised Flying Nun label partnered with Remote Control for distribution in Australia. It’s also a conclusive return to the waggish lyrics and ropey rock sprawl that defined The Verlaines during their 1980s dream run from Hallelujah All the Way Home through Some Disenchanted Evening.
Recorded with the band’s current live incarnation, including longtime drummer Darren Stedman, Untimely Meditations is an album-length rant about anything and everything. Downes is in peak referential form, rivalling the early days when he would casually cite Arthur Rimbaud and namesake Paul Verlaine in a song like ‘Death and the Maiden’. Here he nods to Nietzsche, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Charlie Chaplin, Dante and the “confused rhetoric” of US conservative commentator Glenn Beck, among others. Moreover, he scans the state of the world and registers his mounting distaste, which alone wouldn’t be that significant if he didn’t brandish his rapier wit so very well.
But he does and, even armed with a lyric sheet, it’s hard to keep up with the acid-tinged words spilling out of him. The music doesn’t make it any easier, stacking conversational exchanges of horn parts over Tom Healy’s serpentine lead guitar. As key a track as ‘Beauty is Truth’ is – railing against what sounds like right-wing media with, “And the masters of warfare that bankroll your show/Like opinions that make their machinery roll” – it bustles with talky horns, Healy’s bluesy climbs and Downes’ fuzzy rhythm guitar. To carry on with the song’s subject matter, it’s as if the band are trying to flip through all the channels without ever settling on one.
That’s not a weakness, necessarily; we just have to recalibrate our listening to process it all. Indeed, the album starts with a bang in ‘Born Again Idiot’, with its sloshing instrumental voices (including Stephen Small’s wobbly keyboard runs) and notable railing against a subject “too drunk to remember what you drank to forget”. There’s a lot of pessimism from Downes, from that song’s lyric “Tried talking to God/He told me ‘get bent’” to the later pronouncement, “We’re on the brink of the same abyss”, on closer ‘What Sound is This?’. That said, there’s an appealing tragicomic edge, especially on the ode to self-medication ‘On the Patches’.
It’s a tangled record, relishing the chaos of Downes’ wordy venting along with the stormy rock instruments and uncommonly multi-faceted trombone, trumpet and saxophone arrangements. It’s utterly restless, from the faltering start of ‘Diamonds and Paracetamol’ to the circuitous nearly seven minutes of ‘A Call From Decades Past’. Downes’ voice still manages those world-weary leaps of old, though it also finds renewed range in the peppy archness of ‘Pets’ – dig that classic Flying Nun jangle – and the shadowy crags of the aptly titled ‘Dark Riff’. And longtime fans will appreciate the return to his favoured subject of poets on ‘James, Kimmy, Nuisance, Hemi’: “Hard drinking poets grow stern in heaven/And get there before they’re 47.”
“‘Untimely Meditations’ isn’t some flimsy afterword tacked onto The Verlaines’ legacy; it’s a vital new exclamation.”
If the rest of Untimely Meditations seems like a bottomless well of wordplay, things truly culminate in the ambitious 11-minute survey ‘Last Will and Testament’. The song touches quickly on assorted world issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and really is more an outspoken list of grievances than what its title promises. Amid that vast scroll of lyrics are weaker lines like, “Last will and testament/No more than a guesstimate”, but mostly this is well-aimed bitterness delivered with conviction, whether you agree with the sentiments or not. Eventually the words drop away, the instruments fall back and it’s just acoustic guitar, finding an unlikely sort of peace.
That’d be a fitting end, but the following ‘What Sound is This?’ has more power in it. Written for the short film Eden with lyrics co-penned by screenwriter Rebecca Tansley, it goes unsettlingly from Fall-like spoken-word verses to a cracking anthem of catharsis. And yet there’s something uplifting in the backing vocals from Eden star Adetokunbo Adu, who plays an itinerant African worker in the film, even as the lyrics evoke the difficulty of people “diverted from places no-one’s heard of” trying to conquer their inner strife in a land no less complicated than the one they left.
Yes, Downes and company take on an awful lot here. But for all that bold reaching as a lyricist and all those punch-drunk layers of music, we’re rewarded with a record that flashes its wisdom and teeth at the same time. Untimely Meditations isn’t some flimsy afterword tacked onto the Verlaines’ legacy; it’s a vital new exclamation.