Victorian singer-songwriter Michael Waugh is a Golden Guitar nominee, for his 2016 album What We Might Be, and winner of the 2018 The Age Music Victoria Award for Best Folk and Roots Album. Folk is probably a more apt classification for his music than country, yet Waugh has become a fixture in Australian country music, and that’s because his sublime storytelling and his willingness to open his heart in performance are qualities that mean something to country music audiences.
Examples of those qualities appear throughout his new album, The Weir, but they’ll likely grab you first on track eight, ‘Warragul Police’. This song stands out on a first listen to the album, and it’s because of Waugh’s commitment to writing lyrics that are richly descriptive but not inherently sentimental. Waugh doesn’t try to manipulate the listener’s emotions – he tells the story, he fills it with colour and character, then he leaves it there for the listener to bring their own memories and experiences to it. The second track, ‘Big Things’, will make every listener think of their own childhoods but Waugh also lets you into his – again, without manipulation, but it’s impossible not to wonder what happened next in his story, and that’s the mark of great storytelling: satisfy our need for a convincing tale but always leave us wanting more.
The Weir was produced by Shane Nicholson, who has been at the reins of many fine country albums in recent years. Nicholson excels at bringing out the qualities of an artist that are unique to them and making sure the production supports those qualities. In the case of Waugh, it’s giving him space to tell his stories, so that his lyrics are at the forefront. That’s to encourage the listener to stay close and pay attention, so as not to miss a single detail. That attention is rewarded in each song, and with each listening. A song like ‘Mary Lou’ sounds like one thing if you’re not listening closely enough but becomes something else – something better – entirely if you are.
Waugh does not resile from addressing difficult subjects, whether they’re about his life, his past or present, or about the world he sees around him. Adjoining songs ’50 Words’ and ‘Born Here’ are companion pieces, looking at Australian immigration policy and social attitudes towards migrants. ‘Like I Used To’ sounds at first as if it’s going to be about difficulty but it becomes a different kind of love song instead.
In case it’s not already clear, this is an album that offers much for the listener who spends time with it. There’s a lot there on first listening and much more with each go round. Waugh is a thoughtful, expressive songwriter and as a singer he is prepared to be bare and honest. The result is an album that can be confronting sometimes, because it challenges the listener to be bare and honest in return, and also extremely rewarding.
The Weir is out now on Compass Bros Records through Universal Music Australia.