“I don’t know if I can trust my country anymore.”
There are a handful of particularly incisive lyrics on Tasmania, the new album by Fremantle psych crew Pond, but that one – stuck in the middle of the single “The Boys Are Killing Me”, so casual and simple in its articulation – hits like a bullet. It’s decades of environmental degradation and colonial violence distilled into one disarming shrug of a realisation – my home country is not what I thought it was.
As Tasmania progresses through its peculiar, idiosyncratic mix of R&B, psych-rock, synth-pop and funk, it becomes clear that “I don’t know if I can trust my country anymore” is not a throwaway, but a mission statement for what is Pond’s most conceptually complex – and, as a result, most rewarding – release to date. No longer content with their position as the goofy runt of the Fremantle psych scene’s litter, Pond uses Tasmania as a springboard for all its most ambitious ideas of what music is, what “Australia” is and, most of all, what Pond is.
The crux of that last idea seems clear. While the band has always been, and remains, a highly collaborative project, Tasmania feels most indebted to the singular and pleasantly skewed vision of frontman, guitarist and vocalist Nick Allbrook, who contributed lyrics to nine of the album’s 10 tracks and who, with his tortured and often chilling lyrics about environmental destruction and colonialism, gives the album its driving conceptual force. The rest of the band – Jay Watson, Joe Ryan, Jamie Terry and James Ireland, who share additional writing and instrumental duties – are still as tight as ever, but Allbrook comes through as a blinding, elemental force on Tasmania, more than he has on any of Pond’s past seven records.
The dazed, waifish presence that Allbrook has long projected in Pond’s live shows is nowhere to be found here, replaced instead by a passion and urgency that sometimes feels as if he’s channelling, say, Brian King of the punk rock band Japandroids. At some points, Allbrook slips into a lithe R&B vocal, which works simply through the power of his conviction, despite the fact it’s not his most natural mode. With Tasmania, Allbrook outs himself as a showman – even more so than on Pond’s similarly theatrical 2017 album, The Weather. This record is all the better for it.
Opener and lead single “Daisy” distills the wonderful aspects of Allbrook’s Tasmania presence into what feels like a survey of the record in miniature – a generations-sweeping opus that nods to Springsteen as much as it does the spacey Pond of old. The scale of “Daisy” is dizzying, and it’s astounding the band pulls off such a conceit so successfully. The song finds Allbrook drawing deft but damning connections between the “men of the frontier stack[ing] the bodies in a heap” and bushfires ravaging south-western Australia, between grabbing a beer from the cooler and standing in the shadow of the Union Jack.
“Daisy” runs over six minutes but feels like seeing a century in mere seconds; Pond’s writing has rarely had this kind of urgency or fervour. Allbrook’s writing across Tasmania, more often than not, spans centuries and generations and governments; history, in the hands of Pond, is mutable and non-linear. Even the record’s title refers not to the present-day Tasmania, but to the idea that in 150 years Tasmania will be the only habitable area in Australia.
The ideas gestured towards on “Daisy” are too big to be neatly tied up in one song. These questions are clearly on his mind throughout the rest of the album, from the environmental apocalypse ballad “Tasmania” to the Aussie masculinity-critiquing “The Boys Are Killing Me” to the spare, stunning “Shame”, which quietly and painfully dissects the state of Australian colonialism. It’s strange to hear a mainstream rock band try to tackle this kind of subject matter in their art, rather than just the usual token social media posts. Pond sell the earnestness far better than the many bands trying to cash in on today’s political moment through virtue signalling.
Allbrook manages to pull off the incredibly fraught balancing act of making himself complicit in this country’s history of violent settler-colonialism – and the environmental degradation it has caused – while still expressing genuine anguish and fear at the destruction he sees all around. I am inclined to believe that Tasmania’s overall struggle is intended to be representative of a broader young settler anxiety. The album’s central figure is sympathetic without asking for sympathy; he takes blame for historical misdeed without valorisation. It’s an incredible coup, not least because there was a time in Pond’s history where a jam record called Beard, Wives, Denim may have seemed to be their opus.
Allbrook’s internalised hand-wringing could sink the record with all the weight and ungainliness of an anvil, in the hands of a lesser band. But this is Pond, and all the thrilling, restless experimentation of their previous work still comes through. Tasmania is one of the band’s lushest, most far-out productions to date, and the speed with which it moves from one idea to another keeps the album afloat for the entirety of its runtime. A track such as “Hand Mouth Dancer”, with its spacey, two-minute outro, feels like a spiritual successor to the many freaked-out psych jams that the band staked their name on. But this time it feels cosmic, with “Heart of Glass”-style disco synths underpinning the rattle of spaceship whirrs and undulating video game clicks. And on album closer “Doctor’s In”, the apocalypse Allbrook has threatened all album finally seems to take hold in a hellish storm of acerbic synths and cavernous drums.
Tasmania is Pond’s first album where the lyrics feel as important as the music. In turn, this gives the music a new level of weight and responsibility. Tasmania was produced by Pond’s longtime collaborator, and former member, Kevin Parker, the producer and multi-instrumentalist behind Tame Impala, and the jump in scale and finesse between The Weather and Tasmania feels akin to Parker’s leap from his sophomore record, Lonerism, to his 2015 opus, Currents. Looking back on Pond’s catalogue in light of Tasmania, a broader picture comes into view – that of a band trying to reach a level of complexity and maturity they might not have been capable of achieving before. Tasmania is the culmination of all that work, and a view into what will come next.
The haunted curio “Shame” in particular looks like an aesthetic way forward for Pond. Allbrook feels lost in deep space on “Shame”; his vocal rings out with nothing to cling onto other than a few stabs of sub-bass and oscillating clicks. “I’m sorry for everything we’ve done,” cries Allbrook, “I’m sorry for the glory of the queen, the glory of the gun.”
His shame is enough to make one recoil; eventually, his voice is swallowed up into a cloud of ambient synths and shuddering drums. The visceral power of “Shame” is breathtaking and disturbing in equal measure; the song feels like Tasmania’s biggest risk, but it pays off magnificently. There’s a futility to Allbrook’s apologies and pleas in the song’s lyrics that’s rattling. In many ways, “Shame” answers Tasmania’s central question: Can we redeem ourselves and save the Earth before it’s too late? It does so with a resounding, “No.”
VISUAL ART Janet Laurence: After Nature
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until June 10
DANCE Dance Massive
Dancehouse, Melbourne, March 12-241
MULTIMEDIA Yabarra: Gathering of Light
Torrens River, Adelaide, until March 17
INSTALLATION You Used Me: Andie McGovern
ArtWorld Studio Gallery, Brisbane, until March 30
CINEMA Melbourne Queer Film Festival
Cinemas throughout Melbourne, March 14-25
LITERATURE Speculate Literary Festival
Gasworks Arts Park, Melbourne, March 15-16
VISUAL ART Gorman Ten Years of Collaborating
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until March 17
VISUAL ART National Anthem and A New Order
Buxton Contemporary, Melbourne, until July 7
PUPPETRY String Symphony
Arts Centre, Melbourne, until March 11
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 9, 2019 as "Pond life". Subscribe here.