Listening to an album for the first time is akin to starting a novel: there is a process of working out what is going on and also deciding if you want to continue with the story that is unfolding. It is rare for either album or novel to grab hold of you immediately; either you arrive at a point of being swept away or you don’t, and the decision is made accordingly. This is true even if you’re predisposed to like the creator: they have a certain advantage, in that you’ve decided to listen to the album (or, first, their single) or read the book. But they still have to win you over.
When I started listening to Jed Rowe’s new album, A Foreign Country, I was predisposed to like it, having found his previous work to be compelling, fascinating and complex. Still, no free pass here: I have a lot of music to listen to and I still need to reach that point of being grabbed.
That point came in song five, ‘Tailem Bend’, which Rowe has also released as a single. But I need to be clear: songs one through four were very, very good. It’s just that it was ‘Tailem Bend’ that made me think that we were off to the races. If you pressed me as to why, I couldn’t say – music is an art, a science and a mystery, and when all those elements are in harmony it’s impossible to say exactly what captures the attention apart from to say that it’s magic. And on the second playing of the album it was clear that the same magic was present in all ten songs.
A Foreign Countryis Rowe’s most Australian album to date, meaning that the lyrical content names Australian places more regularly than his previous works; Port Douglas, Mission Beach, Bondi, the Murray and the Coorong and Narromine all appear. And while Rowe is Australian, the title of the album may be a nod to the fact that Australia is geographically so diverse and vast that even its lifelong residents can find themselves in what seems like a foreign land even if it’s a hundred kilometres down the road.
As with his previous albums, the songs are stories, usually of others – and if they are stories from Rowe’s own life we’ll never know, because he tells each story with the same feeling. Rowe is a deliberate, considered, meticulous lyricist, as well as a poetic one – if you read the lyrics on their own, it is immediately clear that they don’t need music to bring them to life, because Rowe has taken care of each word and line to ensure that they are works of art. That perhaps makes it more difficult for him to turn these into songs, for poems don’t always lend themselves to accompaniment. In Rowe’s case, though, they do. Rowe has always had a wonderful voice, and he’s an accomplished guitarist, using both instruments to bring more life, and nuance, to his lyrics.
The instrumentation on this album is sparse (but not threadbare). It’s true that Rowe doesn’t need much to bring his lyrics to musical life but he’s also wise enough to exercise restraint – not so much a case of ‘less is more’ as ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.
Rowe has built an impressive catalogue of songs that satisfy on many levels. The lyrics always tell a story that seems complete until you realise that there are layers of story which aren’t in the songs but which have informed Rowe’s choice of words. Musically, Rowe always delivers because he applies the same attention to detail to the music as he does to the words. And then there is the meaning that Rowe brings to the songs and the space he allows for the listener to bring their own. When an artist is aware of his role, as Rowe is – when he’s aware that he is the creator but he is also the messenger and that the message never belongs completely to him – he produces songs like these, which gave the listener room to put themselves inside them. That requires a sublimation of ego to the greater purpose of art while also believing that you’re the right person to bring that message. It’s the same kind of delicately balanced dance that is required to make a great song, and Rowe has it.
A Foreign Country is out now.
or Google Play.