This record is the work of a guy who used to front a popular Australian rock group. Don’t worry though, because Burning Boy isn’t Joe Mckee getting intimate with an acoustic guitar, and none of the press material suggests he went anywhere exotic to record it. Likewise, be assured that Burning Boy won’t rub salt into any wound sustained thanks to his former band’s disbandment.
No, the fact that Joe McKee once fronted some other band is very much beside the point here (despite my labouring to mention it) but if you were fond of Absence’s unspeakable pre-dawn rituals, Burning Boy sounds like the ensuing daybreak: a figure lone on a foreign shore, quiet and austere, a victor at the end of a vicious cycle.
Mckee's first words on 'Lunar Sea' encapsulate how this record sounds: “Am I losing time with reality? Or am I waking up from some lucid dream?” Mckee's magic is in miniaturising the world until it resembles an ant farm, observed from some cosmic height. His voice casts an authoritative shadow over all it surrounds, and his tone during songs like 'Darling Hills' and 'An Open Mine' suggest a kind of god-like bemusement. It's in the way his voice, and the immaterial string flourishes that haunt this record, preside over television broadcasts documenting the Darling Ranges fires, as if he's managed to tap into our transmissions from above. Elsewhere, mining ('An Open Mine')– and the exorbitant wealth it brings – is addressed, but not disparagingly, because here Mckee is interested in “why” rather than the earthbound question of “whether we should”.
Both songs are about the environment, but it's a hazy, time-lapsed vision of a planet gradually changing patterns like business as usual, an impression corroborated by the pace of his music, which glides listlessly as if in step with the movements of the earth. That's the point of view Burning Boy offers: while they, the ant workers, mould it into shapes and argue about its fate, we impartially witness from afar. And it's exactly this guru-like bemusement that seems to guide Burning Boy, because this is a record about detachment. When Mckee addresses characters specifically, such as during 'Flightless Bird' or 'Golden Guilt', he does so with an air of distant sympathy, or during 'The Garden', with a kind of neurotic knowingness.
Lyrically, 'The Garden' acts as a reprise to 'An Open Mine', the only explicitly didactic song on the record: “If you keep on digging, there'll be no one left to buy your diamond rings.” Some of the furore of his former band is revisited here, albeit against a calmer backdrop, but Burning Boy isn't about anger. It feels like a resignation to anger's worthlessness. These songs sound like a series of dim memories from some vaguely threatening dream. It's a record about powerlessness, a particularly resonant theme in 2012. It's about being too far away or too ineffectual to influence, but maybe against the odds someone will hear you.
Joe Mckee may have shrugged his band away, but his themes are still developing in the same direction. This is a frightening and beautiful record.
by Shaun Prescott