Where have I crashed?
Some strange land without language.
My bones heavy, the sun savage on my skin,
Waist deep, where Bass Strait fills the Powlett.
The thought of you, my son combing me back to the shore.
– “Bone Heavy”
This opening stanza plunges us into the deeply immersive world of Blake Scott’s Niscitam. The music roils majestically as Scott describes a perilous swim among the chilly breakers at Kilcunda, in Gippsland, when the waves begin to resemble “a long, slow avalanche”. Like the roiling ocean itself, the music of “Bone Heavy” ebbs and swells as it oscillates between two wildly contrasting keys, seeking an impossible resolution.
“Bone Heavy” is the first of many amazing songs on Scott’s Niscitam, a compelling solo album released through Wing Sing Records, the musician’s own label. Scott has released three albums with his punk-edged rock band from Melbourne’s northern suburbs, The Peep Tempel. As great as those albums are, Niscitam is in a class of its own.
It’s not a crowd-pleasing album. It is, however, a powerful artistic statement from someone I consider one of the most important songwriters working today.
Track two, “Fever”, continues without a moment’s pause, ratcheting up the tension. A Prince-like steamy funkiness about the track sweetens Scott’s acidic lyrics about alcohol abuse. Describing himself as “a pig in shit”, the colloquialism is inverted from a statement of carnal bliss into a scathing indictment. The seductive, poisonous allure of alcohol is aptly captured by Scott’s couplet, “It burns well this oleander / I let the brushfires fill my lungs”.
There are also moments of pure joy and unalloyed optimism. The first of these is “Bullfloat Zen”, a paean to manual labour and the working-class characters who populate a construction site. Scott has a novelist’s eye, picking up minute, seemingly insignificant details that reveal character.
In the cab of the old Daihatsu, Bruno is cooking chillies with his lighter
He has a grappa with his coffee and never butters his bread
He’s pushin’ 70, and still riding on the Bullfloat
His spine has more lumps than a sugar jar in a lunch shed
– “Bullfloat Zen”
Manual labour is not an abstract concept to Scott: when he was in his early 20s he spent six months as part of a road gang repairing bridges in the Pilbara and he currently works as a carpenter. “I’ve learnt to use my hands and met some great people doing it and, you know?” he told me during an interview. “There is something really beautiful about concreting and the levels of exhaustion you get to.”
“Bullfloat Zen” paints a rosy picture about the dignity of labour but Scott is also aware of the daily treadmill that many working people endure as they struggle to survive, as he describes in songs such as “Hammer” and “Pressure”:
Traffic, work, bills
Someone change the fucking station
Scott was born and raised in south-western Australia, in the wheatbelt town of Narrogin. A typical country kid, he was a handy Aussie rules footballer. Even then, his natural inclination to go against the grain saw him choose to play footy with “Railways”, the town’s rough team of ne’er-do-wells, rather than with the more prestigious “Towns”. This was despite the latter’s attempts to lure him away as one of Railways’ star players.
What Scott’s roughneck country mates didn’t know was that he was a budding poet and songwriter. After hearing Nirvana he taught himself guitar and set his sights on a career in music, eventually moving to Melbourne to follow his muse. The Peep Tempel formed a few years later but, ever the rebel, Scott found himself playing unfashionable music in an unfashionable part of the city. By the time The Peep Tempel started to gain a sizeable following the singer was already in his late 20s – another strike against him. The music he was making wasn’t commercial and he was already too old to be lionised as part of the Triple J churn of juvenilia.
Another hindrance was that his songs had dark subtexts and featured far-from-heroic characters, couched in a strong Australian idiom. None of this appealed to the image-conscious Australian music industry. After failing to attract interest from record labels, The Peep Tempel started their own, Wing Sing Records, which has recently begun to sign other artists.
Another person who has done things the hard way is Gerald Murnane, who in 2018 was described by The New York Times as “the greatest living English-language writer most people have never heard of”. Murnane was a massive inspiration for Niscitam: “I’ve never met him but I felt like he was a bit of a life mentor at the time,” Scott told me. “He was the conduit to getting in touch with my own thoughts and feelings in regard to, subconsciously, what I was dealing with.” Murnane’s 1982 novel The Plains inspired “The Plainsman”, which sits literally at the centre of the track list but also is the heart of the album. For Scott, reading The Plains was revelatory. He even dreamt he met Murnane at the writer’s local golf club in Goroke, Victoria, and this surreal encounter is recounted in “The Plainsman”.
The album crackles with fierce honesty, whether it’s the scathing “Kalashnikov” and its searing portrait of pampered indifference and entitlement, or the bleak “Magic” and “Hammer”, horrific tales of mindless drudgery, hedonism and depressive feelings of self-loathing. Niscitam is forensic in its attempt to get at the deepest, hidden truths in Scott’s psyche.
It finishes with an incredible one-two punch finale. The first of these, “Love”, is a surprisingly straightforward depiction of a fundamental emotion. This song is beautiful, truthful and uncompromising, exploring this clichéd subject without any trace of mawkishness.
“Love” is a triumph but “Hillman Hunter”, the final song, is even more remarkable. Here the songwriter pays tribute to an old girlfriend who, many years after their relationship, died by suicide. Tender, emotionally devastating and philosophical at the same time, this song is a towering achievement that works like a memory play, with reality and fiction blurring through the prism of passing time.
From the passenger side, I have you clichéd
in a colourful bonnet and oversized sunglasses
Neither of which I recall you ever wearing
You are smiling playfully, and I am careful
not to clip at your wings
In the late afternoon, the Freo doctor licks at the old
braised chassis and rocks us into a gentle slumber
Each time we take her out, I am slightly older
Not so yourself
32, though the Hillman was long gone before
you reached that age
If you want art of extraordinary accomplishment – the kind that furnishes insights into the human condition and the world we inhabit – then this is the album for you. We need more like this. Absolutely brilliant.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 31, 2020 as "Majestic darkness".
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