Empire begins with two distinctive sounds. A church bell rings, accompanied by the low whirring of a bullroarer. Are the bells tolling for a funeral or merely sounding the hour? And what of the bullroarer, Aboriginal Australia’s original bush telephone? Is it warning of impending danger or is it the accompaniment of a sacred ritual?
In its first few seconds, William Crighton’s “Fire in the Empire” juxtaposes two antique methods of communication from two different Australian histories: one white, the other black. Are these voices in opposition or harmony? The answer comes immediately when a steel guitar anxiously strums and Crighton begins to sing about an apocalyptic clash of cultures that he witnessed in a dream:
I was out where the straight road ends
Red dust rises, muddy river bends
I laid down on the sand
And fell into a dream
The earth and crow appeared
With a beak of eyes
Filled with iron tears
Fire in the Empire
I saw tall ships
Blood on the wattle
There was a baby buried to her neck on the bank
The water ran red as a white man sank
Leaned forward and kicked off her head
It’s a grisly vision of unimaginable brutality, made even more jarring by the banal denouement Crighton paints in the next verse:
Now there’s old Coke cans
And fibro homes
Cattle roam on ancient bones
And last night by the Bogan River
I saw a black snake coil and the Southern Cross shiver
This is strong stuff. The music constantly boils and seethes underneath, a vortex of distorted guitars, ghostly voices and disembodied sounds that finally erupts in a burst of fevered drumming. In a state of alarm, the singer yells, “Fire in the Empire!” and the music reaches its nightmarish peak. As the sound ebbs away, all that remains is the tolling bell.
After such a furious beginning, the album’s second song is a respite, finding solace in common humanity. The cheerfully rambling “Let Love Come First” may be short and sweet but there’s steel beneath its sentimentality, as Crighton advises, “When you’re bleeding out / You’ve got to let love come first.” Darkness and light are mingled throughout Empire, a dynamic that plays from one song to the next in the track listing.
I interviewed Crighton a few weeks ago and, in person, he cuts quite an imposing figure. Raised on a farm in Ardlethan, southern New South Wales, he’s a tall, strapping bushman, who looks as if he can handle a real axe as easily as the six-stringed variety. “I was pretty straighty,” Crighton told me. “I grew up pretty Christian and I didn’t know too much about anything.” Raised on church hymns and Johnny Cash, Crighton began to dream of a life beyond the farm. “I always knew I wanted to pursue music but I didn’t know how.”
The fundamentalist Christianity of his childhood shows up in Empire’s next song. “Devils Tongue” is a fire-breathing diatribe that questions notions of faith, objective truth and credulity in a media-saturated world. There are references to a lake of fire, the Garden of Eden and someone who claims to have held the bones of Christ. Totemic images of animals also crop up: a crow, a lizard and a black cockatoo. When I interviewed him, Crighton explained the origin of his surreal imagery. “A lot of these songs come from dreams that I have.” I suggested that, taken as a whole, his lyrics seem to indicate that he doesn’t believe in any specific deity. “That’s accurate,” he replied. “I have faith in us.” Nevertheless, he still has great respect for his fundamentalist grandmother. “She was a lovely woman,” he said. “She always was pretty true to the words of Jesus, which, if you believe the words in red, I don’t know whose words they are, but they’re pretty good words.”
The musical backing of “Devils Tongue” gallops underneath while the singer charges forward like a man possessed. A few minutes in, the frantic pace eases as the drums relax into half time then, a little further on, the time signature halves again and the band stretches out for an extended jam. Instruments and sounds go in and out of focus in the mix, making this a companion piece to “Fire in the Empire” sonically as well as spiritually.
After the hot-blooded aggression of “Devils Tongue”, “Happiness” acts as a salve. It’s a jovial jig that shrugs off questions about the purpose of existence, positing that insects are just as qualified as humans to provide the answer.
Crighton’s own search for fulfilment took him to China in 2005. At the age of 19, he was recruited to sing for a blues group started by an Australian expat living in Beijing. Later, the singer moved to Nashville and for the next seven years he tried unsuccessfully to establish a musical career in America. Without realising it, the raw country boy was gaining a priceless musical education. He retreated back to the Riverina dispirited, only to discover his true songwriting voice. The songs began pouring out and, in 2016, ABC Music released his self-titled debut album, William Crighton, which attracted rave reviews. After 11 years, Crighton had become a classic “overnight success”.
He still wasn’t satisfied. Since then, his songwriting has continued to develop and so has his sound. The genial alt-country of William Crighton has become the unruly rock of Empire. It’s not as big a shock as Dylan going electric but it’s definitely a bold change of direction. Most importantly, Empire is an artistic breakthrough and I fully expect it will be seen as one of the best Australian albums released this year. It’s certainly my favourite so far.
The next two songs form the centrepiece of the album. “Mr Brown” and “Sadness” have a hint of baroque pop about them, particularly the first of the two. “Mr Brown” depicts the sort of peculiar character that shows up in the songs of Ray Davies and pre-disco Bee Gees, especially in the latter’s song from 1967, “New York Mining Disaster 1941”, a song Crighton says he’s never heard. Mr Brown is engaged in the futile exercise of stockpiling resources while the world ends, not recognising that his fate and the planet’s are inextricably linked. Unfortunately, there are many rich people, corporations and their political enablers who have Mr Brown’s exact mindset.
“Sadness” approaches folk-pop, based as it is around delicate ukulele fingerpicking. An analog synth dances nimbly around the melody during the choruses while sombre horns and a clarinet gently murmur in the background, in an exquisite arrangement.
The production of the entire album is inspired. A lot of credit must be given to producer Matt Sherrod, who also plays all of the drum parts and some of the keyboards. Crighton’s friendship with Sherrod was one of the more enduring legacies of the time he spent in Nashville, and Sherrod has played a crucial part on both of the artist’s albums.
In fact, the contributions of all the musicians on this record are imaginative and considered, including that of Crighton’s wife, Julieanne. As well as being a co-writer of some of these songs, her backing vocals add a unique quality wherever they appear. Crighton is justifiably a huge fan of her work. “She can do things with her voice that I’m always in awe of, and I’m not just saying it because she is my wife,” he says. “She’s like a theremin … It’s like an operatic thing ... sometimes it’s like punk, like Iggy Pop with a higher voice.” The pair have been together since Crighton was 21 years old and Julieanne was 18, and she was with him for all the ups and downs of the United States sojourn. “Yeah, she’s been through everything, for better or for worse. So it’s definitely been a roller-coaster for her.”
There’s a song named for her towards the end of the album, but Julieanne also figures strongly in “Morning Song”, which comes just before it. They’re both heartfelt paeans to love and family, and their presence enriches Empire enormously. “Morning Song” is the one track on the album that comes closest to carefree joyfulness.
This is a morning song for you
To make you feel better than you do
This is a morning song, hey hey
I wrote it for you
Don’t look at the morning news
Let me share the weight with you
Come out and feel the sun
I wrote a song for you
“Julieanne” comes next, and Crighton’s playful, dark humour admits that their relationship isn’t all domestic bliss:
You’ve threatened to kill me
But I don’t think you will
And I’ll love you ’til the end, Julieanne
That last line would have made a great ending for the album but Crighton has one more trick up his sleeve, a simple masterpiece called “Someone”. The lyrics are a rollcall of human behaviour. Some of these moments are profound, some are mundane but either way, Crighton lists them without judgement.
Someone’s fallen in war
Someone’s preparing for love
Someone’s walking out the door
Someone can’t get enough
Someone got up off their knees
Someone got down on their luck
Someone needs more than a fuck
Someone’s impossible to please
I like Crighton’s lyrics so much that I find it hard to resist the urge to print them in full, but this is the final stanza:
Someone’s deep in regret
Someone’s getting on the gear
Someone’s in a cold grave
Someone’s getting out of here
The finale of “Someone” features the vocals of Gawurra, the Yolngu singer from Milingimbi Island in north-east Arnhem Land with his song line about a cockatoo, flying and observing. This aligns perfectly with the album’s running theme of totemic animals but, more importantly, Gawurra’s voice connects back to “Fire in the Empire” at the beginning of the album, demonstrating the survival of an ancient culture in the face of unbelievable adversity.
I said earlier that Empire is my favourite Australian album of the year thus far but I think that may be underselling it. This is the best album I’ve heard this year, from anywhere. At 32 years old, William Crighton has many years of creativity ahead of him but as far as I’m concerned his songwriting needs no further improvement. I’m eagerly awaiting a whole lot more of it.
CLASSICAL The Bernstein Songbook
Sydney Opera House, May 10-12
THEATRE Quiet Faith
Home of the Arts, Gold Coast, May 9-10
Everglades Historic House & Gardens, Leura, NSW, until May 20
VISUAL ART Grandmothers
Museums throughout Melbourne, until October 28
THEATRE Resident Alien
Fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, May 9-13
THEATRE The Sugar House
Belvoir Theatre, Sydney, until June 3
THEATRE Going Down
Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, May 10 – June 3
VISUAL ART Glitterscapes
Tuggeranong Arts Centre, ACT, May 10 – June 2
DANCE Burn the Floor
QPAC, Brisbane, May 8-9
VISUAL ART Art on Parade
The Parade, Adelaide, until May 7
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 5, 2018 as "Empire of the sung".
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