Albums of 2019
Sampa The Great
“Sorry I’m not home yet. If you’re searching for me… shit, I’m probably searching for myself.” These words, spoken by rapper Sampa The Great at the centre of her wonderful, sprawling new album, The Return, don’t feel like the kind of definitive statement usually associated with complex, career-defining records. They are words of hesitation and ambiguity; culturally, the act of searching for oneself tends to be associated with adolescence and immaturity. The Return, though, is anything but. A 19-track odyssey of rap and R&B, it charts Sampa’s journey to self-determination and self-love in a world fixated on othering and disenfranchising her, all while exploring and redefining what it means to belong.
Compared with her past full-length projects – 2015’s The Great Mixtape and 2017’s Australian Music Prize-winning Birds and the BEE9 – The Return is a daunting prospect. It is nearly half an hour longer than Birds and the BEE9, and shifts in form and style across its 80 minutes. But to say that The Return is inaccessible would be spurious. As the scope of her vision has increased, so has Sampa’s ability to welcome new listeners into the fold and help along those who might find some of the headier sections – such as the vital, ambient-leaning nine-minute title track – initially challenging. For every track that drifts, such as “The Return”, or the hushed, chanting “Dare to Fly”, there is one that stomps. Lead single “Final Form”, for instance, galvanises listeners with its chants of “Black power!”
Through the course of the album, Sampa travels from a place of alienation to, eventually, one of moderate comfort. In turn, The Return’s production slowly shifts from anxious and heavy-hitting rap to fluid, jazzy R&B. By the record’s final minutes, Sampa has found something approximating “home” not in any physical place but in herself and in her art. “When death comes for me, I pray my seeds will live on in my story,” she intones on “Made Us Better”, marking The Return as memoir as much as music. On this closing song, the dexterous young rapper sounds comfortable and starry-eyed, more at ease in her own skin than earlier on. Or, as she raps on “Leading Us Home”: “I’m like the only home that I ever left.”
The Wonderful World of Nature
The Wonderful World of Nature, the debut record from Melbourne musician Elizabeth, finds elemental rapture in shocking pain. Across 11 languorous, devastating torch songs, she continually seeks out new ways to turn tales of a failed relationship and emotional turmoil into music that – through the use of her clear, powerful falsetto – approximates the cleansing spirituality of a hymnal. While it is ostensibly a chronicle of divorce, The Wonderful World of Nature pushes past the typical individualism of break-up records to say something essential about the intersections of love, power and femininity.
From its earliest moments, The Wonderful World of Nature possesses a bracing and occasionally upsetting self-awareness that positions it in contrast to much of the torturously sad pop filtering through popular culture. “I could bring you flowers, or sing you a love song,” Elizabeth sings on opening ballad “Beautiful Baby”, before twisting the scalpel with the words, “Almost like I mean it.” These kinds of sharp left turns occur throughout the album, painting Elizabeth as a heroine more willing than most to depict herself as the villain of her own story. On “Here”, she recounts the accusations hurled at her by a partner – she is manipulative, she is controlling – before wondering whether she can change at all: “Maybe I’m not just sick, but I am bad,” she sings. “Hurting you so doesn’t even make me sad anymore.” These emotionally bloody lyrics shatter the pristine, glossy facades of Elizabeth’s songs, which largely use gauzy synth and shoegaze guitar to find a space between the haze of Cocteau Twins and the clarity of Top 40 pop.
The swelling choruses of songs such as “Parties” and “Meander”, as well as the record’s canny moments – such as the sound of a scream under the line “We’re screaming in the street” on album highlight “Death Toll” – pull The Wonderful World of Nature away from any potential po-facedness. Unlike many other break-up albums, this one doesn’t feel like it should be relegated to solo listening. This is a record about the inherent terror that comes with uncontrollable desire – but Elizabeth makes it sound like a dream.
Emma Russack resists the urge to make sweeping statements about the world around her. With the world in such a precarious state, how could she? Winter Blues, the Melbourne-based singer-songwriter’s fifth full-length record, is a collection of minor-key ballads about the uncertainty and unease of millennial life, and the deep-seated malaise that comes hand in hand.
While Russack’s excellent 2017 album, Permanent Vacation, used lounge-pop and lilting, limping rock to underline her acerbic commentary on technology and modern romance, Winter Blues eschews cynicism entirely. This album feels more about making peace with the skew-whiff nature of the 21st century than trying to puncture it.
The songs on Winter Blues are bare-bones and inviting, largely consisting of acoustic guitar or piano and Russack’s smooth drawl. Much of the album concerns itself with how cyclical life can be. Opener “Horses” finds Russack dreaming up an existence in which she tends to the titular animals, if only she could ever tame one; the record’s final track, “Never Before”, mirrors this, with Russack lamenting that the lover she needs most is the one she couldn’t keep by her side.
On “Winter Blues”, Russack lists some of life’s pleasures – “the jokes”, “dinner out” – that no longer provide her with enjoyment, before deciding to “blame it on the winter blues”, like some kind of comical acknowledgement that sadness is a constant in life. Daunting, sure, but in a chaotic world, any kind of chaos feels like comfort.
Darkening of Light
Strange, violent maximalism is having a moment in popular culture right now, with artists as disparate as the electronic duo 100 Gecs and rapper Denzel Curry using harsh noise to convey a kind of nihilistic, cathartic thrill. Sydney producer and engineer Ptwiggs has been perfecting her take on this sound for years now, and proves herself as one of Australian experimental music’s most clever innovators on Darkening of Light, her recently released six-track EP.
Ptwiggs’ distorted, lo-fi 2018 three-track RIP was defined by a sense of constant entropy. Darkening of Light, on the other hand, throws moments of true horror into relief by introducing clearer, prettier sounds into Ptwiggs’ world. The shimmering, metallic synth line on “Trust” feels like one of the most unadorned parts Ptwiggs has incorporated into her music; it exists not for its beauty, though, but as a kind of feint, leading into sounds of shattering glass and destruction. Vocals are more important than ever on Darkening of Light, forming the centre of “Worth It” and “Ebb and Flow”. Androgynous and heavily processed, the vocals engender a kind of niggling anxiety new to Ptwiggs’ music. Darkening of Light, so variegated in its methods of creating terror, points towards a promising expansion of Ptwiggs’ sound and serves as proof that, as ever, she’s ahead of the curve.
VISUAL ART Hugh Ramsay
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, December 1—March 29
BALLET The Nutcracker
Sydney Opera House, until December 18
MULTIMEDIA Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines
NGV International, Melbourne, December 1—April 11
SCULPTURE Surface Tension
Mundaring Arts Centre, Western Australia, until December 22
MULTIMEDIA Fiona Tan: Ascent
Samstag Museum of Art, Adelaide, until December 6
MULTIMEDIA Boomalli Now and Sister ++++++ Familial Formations
Moonah Arts Centre, Hobart, until December 14
VISUAL ART Papunya Tula Artists: Community X
Utopia Art Sydney, until December 21
VISUAL ART Jake Moss: With Feelings
Brisbane Powerhouse, until December 15
THEATRE Photograph 51
Arts Centre, Melbourne, until December 10
MUSICAL HMS Pinafore
Hayes Theatre Company, Sydney, until December 14
MUSIC She Sessions
Public House Petersham, Sydney, December 7
MUSIC Norfolk Island Jazzes it Up
Venues throughout Norfolk Island, December 2-5
MULTIMEDIA Sun it Rises
Ambush Gallery, Sydney, until December 1
OPERA Opera in the Bowl
Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, November 30
CINEMA Tilde Film Festival
Footscray Community Arts Centre, Melbourne, until December 1
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 30, 2019 as "Star tracks". Subscribe here.