I repeat, for the third time on these pages (see single and gig reviews), the story of Bernard Fanning, because British audiences remain relatively unaware of the Australian. He has been the lead singer of Powderfinger, a five-piece from Brisbane, for fifteen years. Huge in Australia, the band has been termed in idiotically wrong circles as “the Australian Radiohead“. In truth, Powderfinger are a ballsy rock band that owe their sound to heavy 70s rock and Pearl Jam. But over the years, they’ve had their gentler, acoustic moments, and it is this style Fanning emphasises on his debut solo album.
Electric guitars are thin on the ground, as mandolins, slide guitar and fiddles complement Fanning’s acoustic picking. It is often easy to belittle artists from a rock background or otherwise who suddenly see themselves as all down-home and retreat to a hut in deepest Tennessee to make the country album that confirms them as bandwagon-jumpers. But the rationale behind Fanning’s concentration on country-blues seems simple and reasonable: “this instrumentation conveys more than you can with electric guitars. I listened to Soggy Bottom Boys quite a bit, and Gillian Welch. But I wouldn’t want to insult people who make real country music by saying that I have. I just respect the genre a lot.”
I’m almost convinced, and it’s always nice to hear a rock star acknowledge their own limitations.It also sounds like Bernard really had a catharsis to go through, which this album seems to be. He needed that Tea and Sympathy: “I was in a relationship that broke down, and writing was part of the mourning process.” A common tale.
There are indeed some moments of such poignancy that even the king of break-up songwriting, label-mate Ryan Adams, would be proud of. Not least, the jaunty but resigned single Wish You Well. But this doesn’t come close to being the stand out track from the album. Believe and Sleeping Rough contain some pleasant and emotive chord changes, like the poor man’s Neil Finn he is, but these are incomparable with Down To The River, one of the best songs he’s ever written and a cut above the rest of Tea and Sympathy’s material. Here is a song of quiet, reflective solitude one moment and searing, heart-rending pleading the next: both singer-songwriterly austere and symphonically grandiose. We should all follow you down to the river when you strike gold like this.
But often Fanning does not. Some of these stripped down tracks, like Wash Me Clean, simply lack a strong enough melody, while Which Way Home? sounds just like Powderfinger, jarring the album with its comparative volume and use of the word ‘fuck’. The album is a welcome and enjoyable addition to Bernard Fanning’s legacy as one of Australia’s rock legends, without being a work to suggest his solo career might better Powderfinger.