THE BLACK ALBUM
for the Numb
Dark, difficult, but a landmark - Dave Dobbyn's new album is reviewed by our rock critic.
Over and over again, from the Dudes' first single to the Footrot Flats soundtrack, Dave Dobbyn has shown us his gift for irresistible pop songs. But, other than a brief flash of Australian success with "Slice of Heaven", in all those years the rest of the world has barely noticed that he exists.
After an absurdly long wait (it's now five years since Loyal), Dobbyn headed out to Los Angeles last year to work on a new album with Mitchell Froom - production god behind hits from Crowded House, Los Lobos, Suzanne Vega- and Bruce and Pete Thomas of Elvis Costello's Attractions, one of the world's most admired rhythm sections. It seemed as if the time to display that pop mastery to the rest of the planet might finally have arrived.
But what he has come back with is a surprise: his darkest, most difficult disc to date. There are no "Slice of Heaven"s on Lament for the Numb: more like slices of hell.
Dobbyn has been through his share of emotional trauma in recent times - the deaths of his father and former bass-player Ian Belton, and whatever frustrations years in the commercial wilderness bring - and the album seems to have been his catharsis.
The first thing that strikes you is its rawness. For most of these songs Dobbyn's voice and guitar are cranked up to overdrive. Even on the ballads the nerve-endings seem exposed. The Thomases provide plenty of steam when it's required, but for whole chunks of songs they lay out completely leaving Dobbyn alone with his demons.
On "Falling off a Log" he screams about "the burning arms of the devil" like some hell-fire evangelist, and in "Buried in the Backyard" he warns in sombre tones of "angels in armchairs with a lust for demons and bad news."
He fronts up to political as well as personal tormentors. The French are the obvious target in "Maybe the Rain" ("they're tattooing chromosomes, from Bikini to the Marshall Islands"), but the pessimistic tone says more about the state of the writer than the planet. Elsewhere he daydreams about a long list of social injustices that have been reversed, before snapping back to reality with the line that gives the song its title: "Don't hold your breath." The guy who once called an album The Optimist now sings, "I carry my cynicism like a tourist with a camera."
Of course he hasn't lost his gift for great melodic hooks, but, where he once polished them until they shone, here they are in the rough. The prettiest is "Belle of the Ball", reminiscent of McCartney, or perhaps Neil Finn, and featuring Froom's almost comically grand piano. But even in this beautiful song there is anguish lurking close to the surface.
Dobbyn has never sung with more intensity and passion - or with less artifice. At just over 35 minutes, Lament for the Numb is half the length of many modern albums, but this is undiluted, industrial stuff and a little achieves a lot. It's a brave album, clearly the one Dobbyn needed to make, though maybe not the one his record company wanted to hear. And, if it's unlikely to make him the star he should be, it has the kind of credibility that comes from more than mere pop craft. Dobbyn has turned his darkest moments into art.
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