Music

The appeal of Dean Lewis’s debut album, A Place We Knew, is that the earnest musings on broken relationships can be moulded to anyone’s story. But what his formulaic songwriting gains in popularity, it lacks in depth and insight. By Brodie Lancaster.

Dean Lewis’s A Place We Knew

Dean Lewis.
Credit: Supplied

To paraphrase John Cusack’s rendering of Rob Gordon’s music-obsessed misery guts in High Fidelity, what came first – the pop songs about doomed relationships or the relationships that inspired them? On singer-songwriter Dean Lewis’s just-released debut record, A Place We Knew, it’s hard to know where one begins and the other ends.

Earnest love songs by floppy-haired balladeers such as Lewis, musical versions of pulpy and predictable romance novels, must include a handful of clichéd motifs  – rainy nights, early morning cab rides home, counting minutes and seconds and moments until a lover leaves, picking up broken pieces of shattered objects or admitting doing so is impossible, sharing problems with a bottle of something brown.

He hits them all – and then some – on this 12-track offering filled with the plucky acoustic guitar sounds and stories of romance gone wrong that have led to the Sydneysider most often being compared to Ed Sheeran. Lewis’s voice is even tinted with a Sheeran-esque filter, cementing him as close to a perfect international export as an Australian record label could hope to find. Audiences both locally and internationally can hear in him an especially sensitive neighbour, a simulacrum of something we’ve known and loved before, packaged just differently enough to feel fresh.

It seems fitting, then, that the hype Lewis is now caught up in came on the back of a 2017 EP called Same Kind of Different. Two tracks from that record – “Chemicals” and “Waves” – appear again on this album. The latter is a dynamic track, questioning the pace with which life is pushing us all forward whether we’re prepared or not. Layered vocals and lush instrumentals set a stirring pace.

Similar to the way Northern Irish band Snow Patrol’s profile grew internationally after their song “Chasing Cars” was featured on Grey’s Anatomy, “Waves” propelled Lewis’s career forward following a sync to The CW teen drama Riverdale. In a moment of acknowledgment of the tear-jerkers that came before him, Lewis sings, on the song “7 Minutes”:

Radio’s playing songs for me and you

"Chasing Cars" reminds me of nights in your room

Lewis’s story is one of intentional success. He was motivated to pursue songwriting as a teenager when his dad brought home a DVD of an Oasis concert. After gaining confidence performing at open-mics, he sought out a music publisher with pop credentials who recruited him as a songwriter for other artists. After just a few months, though, Lewis decided the only person who should sing his songs was him.

“The way I write lyrics, which is very first-person; the acoustic guitar; and the rawness. They’re the three things that tie it all together,” Lewis said in his album bio, identifying the elements he believes result in his music connecting. With these simple parameters, he’s crafted a formula for writing songs that induce goosebumps, clutched hearts and, most importantly, streams.

It’s admirable for an artist to confess to the work involved in their career, to know it wasn’t an effortless stab in the dark or the work of an anonymous machine. But in interviews and reviews, there is rarely much to say about Lewis apart from that he has achieved what he set out to do – write songs that have latched on to audiences around the world. When success alone seems the ultimate goal, the music that engenders it need only be palatable and pleasant. By lacking bravery and specificity, this record can mould itself into the soundtrack for any number of experiences, affairs and first dances. Is it all that refreshing for an artist to admit to a carefully constructed formula for songwriting if the songs that eventuate are voids designed for any one of their millions of eventual listeners to project upon?

It’s taken a determined effort not to mention already the streaming figures Lewis’s songs have accumulated on platforms such as Spotify. But sandwiched between “Waves” and “Chemicals” on A Place We Knew is his enormous hit “Be Alright”, which, since its release in September, has served as bait in the choppy waters of the streaming algorithm, exposing Lewis’s work to eager schools of new fans.

“If you haven’t heard the name of our next guest, you’ve likely heard his song; it’s been streamed over 850 million times,” declared Ellen DeGeneres, before Lewis’s recent appearance on her daytime talk show. The song charted in more than 10 countries and is now quadruple-platinum in Australia.

“Be Alright” is cloying and obvious in its mission to invoke swoons. A banal recount of discovering a girlfriend’s infidelity and being comforted by “the boys”, it is a case study in the stunted emotions men struggle to access when their mateship requires it of them. Even Lewis’s tender vocal skills cannot cover the mind-numbing simplicity of the sentiment that passes for reassurance:

It’s gonna hurt for a bit of time

So bottoms up, let’s forget tonight

You’ll find another and you’ll be just fine

Let her go …

In a grand attempt to be a sensitive counterpoint to hyper-masculinity, Lewis reveals its greatest failures.

With its bruv-y use of the word “mate” and similar bare instrumentation, “Be Alright” reads as a neutered version of The Streets’ 2004 break-up ballad “Dry Your Eyes”. According to Lewis’s annotated reading of it on the lyrics site Genius, the track even began its life as a rap, jokingly sung down the phone to an ex-girlfriend – one of many women Lewis has vaguely mentioned as the inspirations for his songwriting.

He wrote “A Place We Knew”, a twangy ballad about his newfound success inserting immense physical barriers between him and his partner – who, he says, was responsible for crafting the song’s repeated refrain, “Your heart is my home”. As the song approaches its climax, urgent drumming builds and builds, leading you to eagerly anticipate an explosive moment – but then they taper off, like the song itself does after Lewis exclaims, “And your heart is my home – and I’m not letting go!” Considering the motivating force behind all of these songs seems to be relationships either dissolving slowly or ending as abruptly as this song does, you have to assume he didn’t make good on that promise.

Lewis seems to revel in grimness. In interviews and onstage he often comments that even the more up-tempo numbers – such as this album’s “Stay Awake” and “Straight Back Down” – are nonetheless underpinned by sadness. He’s joked that writing songs about doomed relationships is easier than fixing them.

In the universe of Lewis’s songwriting, he and the women in his life are the dual planets around which his lyrics orbit. From his singular perspective, women are either mysteries to be solved or sorrowful creatures to be saved. They are either in the rearview mirror following a romantic implosion, or the prospects for future redemption. Girlfriends and lovers are never spoken or thought of in the present tense. Relationships become fodder because of their endings and beginnings, bumpy takeoffs and turbulent landings.

For all the passion and apparent romance in the well from which Lewis drank in order to write these songs, there is an absolute sexlessness to them. Pleas for lovers to stay (and do what?) and confessions that he didn’t love them well or hard or long enough are repeated throughout the record, as are vague encouragements for girlfriends to “stay awake” and “hold on”. But to what end? Anecdotes of emotions such as these are unable to dig deep enough to truly connect to any kind of truth, and reveal little about their narrator besides the fact that he wants his needs met.

Lewis manages to reach below the surface on album closer “Half a Man”, in which he sounds remarkably open and generous about his feelings of inadequacy. But by then, after meandering through 11 rounds of performed broodiness, this attempt at introspection feels too rare to be anything but an exception to the well-established rule.

Arts Diary

MULTIMEDIA Love to All, Connie

State Library of Queensland, Brisbane, March 26-31

VISUAL ART Vanessa Stockard: Gleam

Scott Livesey Gallery, Sydney, until April 13

MULTIMEDIA Healing Practices

Bundoora Homestead Art Centre, Melbourne, until May 5

VISUAL ART Marijke Loosjes: None of Us Are Getting Out of Here

Heathcote Cultural Precinct, Perth, until April 28

COMEDY Sami Shah: Sacrificing the Goat

Melbourne Town Hall, March 28-April 21

MUSICAL Book of Mormon

QPAC, Brisbane, until May 31

SCULPTURE Yurtu Ardla

South Australian Museum, Adelaide, until June 16

VISUAL ART John Gollings

Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until July 21

Last chance

MULTIMEDIA The Theatre is Lying: The inaugural Macfarlane Commissions

Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, until March 24

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 23, 2019 as "Surface paradise". Subscribe here.

Brodie Lancaster
is a critic and the author of No Way! Okay, Fine.