The solo album is a cliché
The ‘solo album’ is always sold as more personal, revelatory or heavy-hitting than what would have been recorded as part of a band. ‘The solo album’ cliché states that the recording is freed of any restraint that comes with collaboration. It’s thus sold as the ‘pure vision’ of the songwriter in question. In truth though, ‘the solo album’ is almost always less interesting than the collaborative one. It can be self-indulgent, containing the ideas that no one was around to shoot down. It can be bullshit. I generally dislike ‘the solo album’ as it seems like it only exists to be sold to me. Middling Australian rock bands have front-men that release solo albums which receive attention thanks to tightly crafted press releases. The mainstream music press loves ‘the solo album’ because it provides easy content. That is the level that ‘the solo album’ usually operates on.
Peter Escott has always felt like a solo musician
How the solo album cliché fits with Peter Escott is uncertain since he was releasing solo recordings before he started The Native Cats with bassist Julian Teakle. It’d be fair to use that fact to excuse all the connotations of ‘the solo album’ as it relates to The Long O, but the songs of the Native Cats are usually very Escott-focused anyway. It could be difficult to distinguish Escott’s solo work from his collaborative work since both projects have similarities, so it would be easy to ask why he’d go solo at all. It doesn’t take long listening to The Long O to see that much of the act’s feeling is lost in the transition to a solo project. Without Teakle’s bass-lines, there’s nothing around to drive the songs – they’re left weightless. The aspect of mocking faux-cool that comes with the guttural quality of the duo’s interplay is missing and you are left with something laid bare. The songwriting isn’t better nor worse on The Long O, but it’s interesting when it’s left to float off its anchor.
The Long O seems like it fits the cliché
The Long O has all the staples of ‘the solo record.’ For the most part, a grand piano takes the place of That Native Cats’ electronic oddities, but there are moments that tease the fact that Escott has come from a different realm. Some songs abandon the grand piano to briefly apply muted drum machines or burnt-out synths. Occasionally, these last for barely a minute. These moments feel like Escott didn’t want to completely let himself go into potentially hackneyed piano-man territory. Slices of hesitance that recall where he came from exist just long enough to distract the record from sounding like a freedom-reaching solo outing. It’s a solo record that occasionally teases itself for being one at all. These straying moments are important on this record.
If The Long O was entirely stripped back to a clean vocal and piano, then the closest contemporaries to Escott would be people as unfashionable as that-irritating-comedy-covers-guy from The Chaser, or some distant memory of Tim Freedman. Escott is a lot less forgettable than those two, even when the songs cross into awkward territory. ‘Angel’ feels like a comedy track in waiting, and it just as well could be. References to wizards, heroes and “the boys” paint a vaguely comedic picture, but there are no apparent laughs – more a sense of responsibility and broken spirit. It’s likely the worst song on the album, but there’s something to its awkward placement that’s weirdly affecting. It reminds me of the moments in TV shows like Welcome Back Kotter when it stops making comedy-fodder of poor kids from bad families and reveals a stark truth behind their livelihood. There are school-teacher evocations to ‘Angel’ because Escott’s voice often sounds very adult and sensible.
The need to interpret
Escott follows ‘Angel’ with a brief synth-reprieve, pulling back from the stark emoting with a fade out; a young John Travolta stares at his feet for a few seconds then someone cracks a joke and the credits roll. It’s a strange form of hesitance, but ‘O’ continues on the prior’s eeriness. “I think about changing sides,” Escott sings, with no signs of finality.
‘My Arm is True’ is an odd song that plays out as another with an exposed heart. Like an ode to the first realisation of love, or to that of a born child, Escott hums, “it’s a body that breathes / it’s a body that aches / and it’s yours.” It’s a sweet sentiment that rolls into a similarly toyish opposing sentiment in ‘I Believe in Devil World,’ likely a funny, incisive comment on imagined hells, but it’s sometimes easy to over-interpret the songs of Peter Escott. If anything came of Escott’s long-form explanation of the themes behind the songs of the Native Cats’ Dallas, it’s that I never had a clue of what he was singing about.
By the album’s end, I feel like I know a lot about Peter Escott despite never having met him. This was a similar feeling I had after listening – somewhat obsessively – to the Native Cats past two albums. It’s what some of my favourite musicians make me feel – that their world is not inaccessible or unfamiliar. I want to relate.
Escott has a way of delivering his words that makes it feel like they could be about you, which is probably why it’s so easy to over-analyse and misconstrue the song meanings. On ‘A16’ he sings, “I took solace in my studies / they said you can’t get that spark from a laboratory / but then the grids and patterns opened up in front me.” I immediately interpreted this to be about general introversion, or obsession in the workplace because I realte to that personally at the moment. Yet that may not even be the case. Just because I feel shut off from the world, it feels as though Escott is shut off from his too – you hear what you want to hear.
Peter Escott’s The Long O is available through Bedroom Suck Records. He will launch it in Brisbane on August 22 with Melt Unit and Fatti Frances, among others, at the 4ZZZ Happyfest.