There are ravens sitting on my window sill. There’s dust billowing up in the street. Overhead, clouds haven’t just gathered. There’s definitely no milling about up there; they’re deep in argumentative conversation and the mood has turned distinctly black. Better pause the CD and wait for things to get a little less threatening.
By the time Conrad Standish is intoning “I’ll retreat to my corner when you get back in yours, I’ll retract all my statements when you retract your claws” in his deceptively tender baritone on I Don’t Want to Lose You Tonight, a mere three songs into Coal, the world feels like a different place. You could be living in a block of flats slap bang in the middle of a metropolis, but after 10 minutes of this album, you wouldn’t be at all surprised if you opened the curtains to find a desolate sun-baked wasteland waiting for you outside.
Devastations populate a world that is full of disappointments, terrible stories, and harsh realities. Needless to say, even the humour that you find in their songs is distinctly black. The title track is a perfect example. Coal is slow paced, funereal dirge that practically insists that you take a bath after you hear it just so you can feel clean again, and yet there’s still a laugh to be had. “My mother she was a whore…my father I barely knew…he said hold on…then he kicked away the chair” murmurs Standish. Well, quite.
Unsurprisingly, this sullen mood pervades the entire album, and it’s not just Standish’s morose delivery that sets the tone. Devastations may well hail from Melbourne, but they recently relocated to Berlin. Quite what it is about that city that brings out the darker side of people has yet to be isolated, but many artists have explored the harsher side of life whilst there. If you’re looking for examples, you’d do well to listen to Lou Reed‘s Berlin, or Iggy Pop and David Bowie‘s output while they went through their Berlin phases.
It’s not just musical history or geography that colours the album though. Tom Carlyon’s guitars crosses genres throughout the album to ensure that the correct shade of doom is set for each track. For the most part he calls on understated folk and country styles to counterpoint Standish’s drawl and the almost oppressive violin of Jakub Janksy. On tracks like Take You Home or What’s a Place Like That Doing In a Girl Like You, his guitars leap from the shadows, aggressively assault the listener before running away and disguising themselves as a Johnny Cash strum. It’s this use of instrumentation and orchestration that is Devastations’ key strength. Each backing vocal, every string part, and every concession to musical violence sounds necessary, and is vital to the very being of the song.
Despite all of this only one thing is certain. It will be said that Devastations have a singer who sounds like Nick Cave. He does, a bit, but it is easily the least significant aspect about this darkly fascinating album.