On the latest Methyl Ethel album, Triage, Jake Webb’s extraordinary songwriting is on full display in pop music of unusual complexity.By Dave Faulkner.
Methyl Ethel’s Triage
Methyl Ethel’s latest album, Triage, is the band’s third and finest. I say band, but in reality Methyl Ethel’s music is almost entirely the work of one person: the prodigiously talented Jake Webb, who writes, performs and produces everything by himself at his home studio in West Perth. His previous Methyl Ethel album, Everything Is Forgotten, released two years ago, spawned the cult hit single “Ubu”, with its irresistible refrain, “Why’d you have to go and cut your hair? Why’d you cut your hair?” Webb must have spent an inordinate amount of time in the studio over the past two years crafting Triage because it is an intricate, richly layered work of magnificent sophistication and artistry. By any measure I can think of, Triage is a flawless album.
“Ruiner” opens proceedings with a flourish. A brief cascade of shimmering synth chords is quickly joined by an effervescent rhythm section and cooing background vocals. The sound is upbeat and infectious, with a strong hint of glam rock, and Webb’s joyful vocal melody only adds to the pop lustre. However, his anxious lyrics immediately undercut the sunny optimism of the music:
I am just a child
I care and cry
Tender but trite
You are all inside
Up to the eyes
So maybe my cloistered fright
My background despair
We could share?
’Cause I’m a ruiner, ruiner, ruiner, ruiner
Yeah, that’s not good enough
That’s not good enough
Webb’s chorus is a pun on his compulsive perfectionism as a musician – the same drive that makes him such a craftsman in the studio results in self-sabotage in the world at large. It’s a theme also echoed in the second song, “Scream Whole”, with a computer-related reference to “Undo, undo again”. We can’t undo our mistakes in life and emotions are much trickier to handle than musical instruments.
“Scream Whole” was the first single taken from Triage and is one of its standout tracks, although all the songs are uniformly excellent. Its title is another pun: Webb heard about someone who had dug a “scream hole” in their backyard as a receptacle for their angst. In Webb’s case, songwriting serves the same purpose because a lot of his anxieties are captured in his songs. The great conundrum is how they still manage to sound so appealing – so pop-friendly – even as they plumb the depths of metaphysical despair. This really is pop music with teeth.
In November, I paid a visit to Webb’s West Perth home to discuss Triage. As I approached his front door I could hear the unmistakeable sound of an electric guitar being strummed somewhere inside the house. At the time, the new Methyl Ethel album was months away from release but Webb was already hard at work on the next one. This is clearly someone who doesn’t believe in downtime or resting on his laurels. His restless urge to progress as an artist has resulted in Methyl Ethel’s sound changing significantly over the course of the three albums, though Webb feels any change has been accidental or, at least, incremental. “In my mind, I’m not starting fresh, like, ‘Where’s the new direction?’,” he told me. “I’m always refining what I actually like the sound of.”
The first Methyl Ethel album, Oh Inhuman Spectacle, was very much guitar-based indie rock, while Everything Is Forgotten heavily featured synthesisers. Triage goes even further in that electronic direction, though there is still a great deal of guitar, albeit processed beyond recognition in some instances. The more significant trend has been towards greater musical complexity and richer harmonic textures. “I’m interested in music that is just a bit more lush,” Webb said of his most recent work. “I’m trying to head towards symphonic.”
Another trend has been the strengthening of Webb’s powers as a lyricist – and they weren’t so shabby to begin with. He has often been loath to interpret his lyrics in interviews – even to the point of seeming evasive – so I didn’t try to quiz him about specific lines. But he was very forthcoming when it came to discussing the overall themes of his songs. When I speculated that many of them appeared to be grappling with the tension between his internal, private world and his external, public self – the way he represents himself and the way that is received by others – he immediately agreed, simply saying, “100 per cent.” I ventured that another theme was the conflict between his ego and his id, to which he replied, “For sure.” As I ventured the themes of specific songs, Webb continued to wholeheartedly endorse my perspectives. “Dave, this is amazing,” he enthused at one point. “No one actually listens to the record. I’ve always said, it’s all there! And I’m glad that it is as transparent as I’ve tried to make it, you know?”
Although he normally hates talking about the specific incidents that trigger his songs – the “why”, if you like – in our conversation Webb was more than happy to discuss the “what”, those underlying ideas that he was exploring in each song.
For example, the album’s third track, “All the Elements”, describes the singer’s frustration at his inability to communicate with his partner:
Still we make apologies
So simple to forget
Though your eyes are all still wet
You’re smiling in the bedroom
Patiently waiting for something to be said
There’s something in my head
But I can’t get it out
All the main elements
Of what it’s all about
Mean nothing in the end
Still I’ll be sorry
Here Webb plays a neat musical trick in the chorus by never allowing the chords to return to the tonic – that is, the “home” key. By keeping the chorus unresolved, musically speaking, it reinforces the feeling of unresolved tension in the words. It’s also worth noting that “All the Elements” is one song on the album that prominently features guitar, to tremendous effect.
Another song that explores the gulf that can develop between lovers is “What About the 37º?”. Its title refers to the temperature of the human body, which the songwriter then juxtaposes with the emotional chill of lost intimacy: “What about the 37 degrees / we shared between the sheets / and beneath our skin?” Blessed with a gorgeous melody, the song is a glorious evocation of tender yearning.
Webb is a truly exceptional songwriter but his knack for melody has to be his most remarkable gift. His tunes leap across unwieldy chord combinations, always sounding effortless and mellifluous. It cloaks his depressive poetry with a lighthearted buoyancy that will deceive the casual listener but that also gives the songs a piquancy that intensifies with every listen. The melodies are not simply a sugar-coating for unpalatable thoughts, they are more of a sop for the soul. It’s as if he is saying that even when things are at their bleakest, there is always beautiful music to uplift our spirits.
One song on Triage that perfectly illustrates Webb’s songwriting skills is “Post-Blue”. Although I had been listening to this song for months, I only recently became aware of how cleverly it has been constructed. Generally speaking, most songs you hear never stray from the one key but “Post-Blue” modulates through four different keys in turn. The first two are relatively conventional, from G minor to its related major key, B flat, but Webb then unexpectedly drops down a semitone, to the key of A major, before winding up in D minor. These aren’t merely different chords – the song switches keys completely at each juncture (technically, there are six modulations if we include the two brief transitions from minor to major). All the while, the melody sounds perfectly natural, as though this is the easiest thing in the world to do, which it most certainly isn’t. We are in the hands of a master and it’s not by accident. In our interview, Webb said: “I went back into Western music theory and chord structures … just going back into building more powerful chord progressions.”
The following song, “Real Tight”, is much more basic harmonically, but here Webb messes with the rhythm structure instead. Although written in an unorthodox 6/4 time signature, it is somehow constructed to almost but not quite resemble a more conventional 4/4 pattern. Its bar-and-a-half feel is so counterintuitive I was almost certain it was something more exotic, such as 5/4, until I counted it out for myself. Surprisingly, this Rubik’s cube of a song was chosen as the second single. Again, Webb’s melodies are good at hiding complicated things.
“Trip the Mains” disarmingly begins with an ’80s-style keyboard riff, reminding me a little of The Cure. The song grapples with incipient psychosis, something many artistic people suspect goes hand in hand with their creativity. Webb told me there was a history of schizophrenia somewhere in his family but mental health was never discussed when he was growing up. “Perhaps it’s an Australian thing, I don’t know. I am seventh-generation West Australian. We’re definitely from the school where depression is kind of a dirty word. Like, ‘Come on! What have you got to be sad about?’ … I haven’t really talked about it with anybody very much before but it’s an inherent feeling, like, there might be something around the corner. It’s just present in my mind –there’s a sort of fear.”
A different way of thinking is explored in “No Fighting”, the album’s brilliant closing track. Webb endeavours to make sense of the endless hall of mirrors that is the online world, where attempts at civil discourse are often seen as evidence of moral weakness:
Friend, debase me live
In the real, online
It’s cooking outside
I don’t even want to side
Your herd is all a team of righteous, and
I don’t really see the line
It’s a vicious playground online and one that is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Appropriately, the song’s title reads like a schoolyard notice: no fighting! Musically, the song is anthemic, providing an exhilarating note of triumph to conclude the album and, for once, the lyrics are in complete concordance. Webb sounds defiant and confident that he is doing exactly the right thing and damn the torpedoes.
On “No Fighting”, Webb may insist he doesn’t want to fight but, artistically speaking, his actions say otherwise. Every song on Triage strikes a forceful blow against mediocrity, apathy and heartlessness. The album never takes a backward step. There is so much more I could say about it – I haven’t even mentioned Webb’s amazing production skills. On the surface Triage might sound like a simple pop album but there is so much more to it than that. I love it unreservedly.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 16, 2019 as "Ethel mercurial man". Subscribe here.