This album released to a black hole of ambivalence last year. It didn’t interest anyone. No one wrote about it, and usually when this happens in Australia it means that everyone quietly agreed that it wasn’t very good.
If something is not very good, few people will speak up and say it. If writers care to write about something that is not very good, it’s because there’s something contained in the record that is easy to object to. There must be some attitude, whether towards life or the aesthetics of pop music itself, that doesn’t sit right at that particular moment in time, to that observer. Or maybe the observer is just bored of that sound, in which case they will articulate this in clever ways that seek to persuade others to agree. For what deeper reasons, only true pedants know.
School of Radiant Living, the self-titled LP from this Melbourne four-piece, is not remarkable, and nor does it offer bait for objection, and nor does it exist within brackets which contain something potentially ‘over’. It is not something anyone can easily opine about. Thus, no one opines. There is no angle. It is fated to a quiet existence, where breaths must be taken deeply and walls must be stared at intently. Basically, this School of Radiant Living album can only blossom off the radar, or in your bedroom. It is adamantly unimportant.
I’m curious about this School of Radiant Living record as a case study. I really love this album. I love this album because I think it is very beautiful. It comes with no complications. I feel fragile listening to this, and that is the only reason it is good. There is no other reason. I’m tempted to interpret the ambivalence towards this record as a symptom of both critics and listeners desiring something iconoclastic, something ‘intrinsically Australian’, in their guitar pop music from Australia. But this blind desire is always misguided. School of Radiant Living sound a lot like other, more popular guitar pop bands from Melbourne, but they’re very different.
A case study example of Australianness in music, at the moment and for several years now, is the genre or scene called ‘dolewave’. Commonly, bands like Dick Diver, The Twerps, Bitch Prefect and even distantly Bed Wettin’ Bad Boys, fit this mould, as do countless others because dolewave is everywhere (except Triple J). These bands are powerful now because they reject the neo-liberal, self-improvement, mortage-till-death, make-a-buck-or-die, protect-at-all-costs impulses which are more real now, in established workaday Australian life, than ever before.
The celebrated attitudes of colonial Australian culture have generally been the opposite of those listed above. Many continue to believe these characteristics are central to our identity, no matter the actual truth. Australians want to be knockabout and easy, modestly philosophical with a Tooheys New in one fist and pool cue in the other. They are focused on noble goals like family and pleasant pursuits like sport. We want to be proud, but we’re not entitled to any of these.
The actual truth is different. The pace, the blithe poeticness, the casual live-and-let-die attitude proffered by ‘dolewave’ groups is at odds with the incumbent reality of Australia. Never has there been more evidence that we are a protective, stuck up and fearful lot, with dozens of carelessly bloodied axes to grind, and a fearsomely xenophobic strain to boot. We’re deadset ugly, and as a result those who love dolewave groups may do so because this music helps them – in indirect ways – mourn what we’ve lost. Dolewave helps us imagine a long-forfeited reality of Australian life, and if it was never a reality, then it was at least a fantasy we’ve clung to which can no longer be sustained. It exists now only as a myth. It’s a lie.
When people identify ‘dolewave’ as a byproduct of John Howard’s 2007 defeat, I don’t think this is accurate. Dolewave is not a celebration. Dolewave is a response to living under Howard, even though it didn’t really blossom as a movement until the Rudd/Gillard years. ‘Dolewave’ is a caustic riff on the few virtuous characteristics of white colonial Australia, the ones our politicians are adamant still remain, the ones we affectionately satirise, and the ones which no Kenny can bring back to life. It’s a satirical roleplay of an Australia we once believed existed, but which no amount of suspension of disbelief can maintain. Dolewave reveals that our former notions of Australianness were flimsy, and that what remains when these notions are removed is… basically nothing. We have nothing. We have no identity but our illusions and our atrocities.
I think the best dolewave is intrinsically depressed. Bitch Prefect and Dick Diver are beautiful and poignant in an aggressively sad way, in a fashion we can only laugh along with. Dick Diver’s ‘New Start Again’ is a paean to the years when artists and outsiders could exist without being ‘creatives’, when unprofitable, art-for-its-own-sake wasn’t necessarily a contract with poverty. ‘Bad Decisions’ by Bitch Prefect is its opposite: it’s hellbent (and rightly so, pragmatically) on the resolution that these impulses should be strangled at birth.
Meanwhile, in Dick Diver’s ‘Hammock Days’, we see an idyllic, calm, benevolent drive-by view of an Australian suburbia unaffected by politics, all standalone bungalows on quarter acre blocks. In other words: the dream. “Another arvo makes its way over a barbecue / another dusk congeals into a glut / and through a screen door a TV blues the room / night ambush – the ultimate chorus.”
It’s a sad, beautiful impression which cannot be witnessed anymore, unless through gritted teeth, because who are those people sitting in that room, blue from the TV, and what ugly truths do they believe.
Dolewave is not important but it is, at least, smart. It is beautiful, sad and smart. It is not, as some of its detractors have surmised, the result of blind apathy. It is bearing witness to these developments and insinuating their results. But it is pop music so it does not bludgeon. It is understated yet incisive. It is aesthetically unambitious but it contains multitudes. Dolewave is the exploration of a dream which, once potent, is no longer believable. Notions of ourselves are the only positive thing we have left. So what comes next.
I was sent this School of Radiant Living record in the last quarter of 2013 and immediately I needed an angle on it. It was a calm, lyrical Australian guitar pop record and I wanted to turn it into a story. I wanted to identify this myth of Australianness inside it, but instead I found a guitar pop record with unforgivingly Australian accents and very little concern about how things were in Australia then, and how things are now. No what once was. No what could be. No angle.
It is very unusual on these terms. It does not concern itself with a mythology, it does not mildly celebrate or condemn or question anything except the purely interior. Its Australianness is purely circumstantial, its beauty is not tethered to ideals or any sense of great loss.
This School of Radiant Living record is uncomplicatedly beautiful. I am forced to listen to these words and these melodies in a manner divorced from any dream, and in this way, it is easy to cherish and believe in. The vocals overreach in beautiful ways that remind me of weird English folk bands from the ‘70s. There is no forced modesty. It is on these terms that I can recommend it, as a record you might enjoy listening to: it does not sound precisely like what an Australian guitar pop band from a certain Melbourne milieu should, simply because it does not trade in confronting banalities. There is no mirage here.
Yet it’s so easy to regard this album as part of a movement: because of its pace, and its considered, blazing sunrise calm, you want it to mean something wider and you expect it to insinuate so much. You look for some deeper meaning to this demeanour, but none exists. This self-titled LP is exactly what so many latter-period, bandwagon jumping ‘dolewave’ records want to be: an unironic collection of Australian sounding songs. It’s the least complicated Australian guitar pop record I’ve heard for ten years, and for that reason alone, I can’t help but love it. It was a forgotten classic the very moment it was released.
Should we accept its existence on these terms? Is that okay, to just be merely this? You can be the judge of that. As it stands, School of Radiant Living is a record that offers no critical vantage point on its status as a conspicuously Australian pop album. At a time when the rest of the world is focusing on our tiny, state capital scenes and splitting hairs about what makes something uniquely antipodean, this kind of inward-looking craft is a refreshing draught of minty air. It’s just a bloody beautiful pop record. It’s something you alone can place meaning inside.
School of Radiant Living was released independently. It’s available through Eternal Soundcheck and Distort.
Two interesting responses to this piece have been published elsewhere by Max Easton and Ian Rogers. (and now another at Mess+Noise by Joshua Manning.)