In Ancient Greek mythology Orpheus is a hero whose musical skills were said to be so sublime that animals, trees and even rocks moved in time with his music. He also travels to the Underworld after his wife, Eurydice, dies from snakebite. He wants to bring her back to life, and he uses his musical skills to charm Hades, the king of the Underworld, into allowing this. Hades sets one condition: that on their return to the world above, they cannot look back. But Orpheus does, carelessly, look back at Eurydice and she disappears.
Troy Cassar-Daley has, in many ways, re-created the journey of Orpheus in his eleventh studio album, The World Today. Indeed, he is our Orpheus. On the first half of the album we hear Cassar-Daley descending through and into pain and confusion. The signifiers are clear: after the uplifting opening track, ‘Back on Country’, we go into ‘My Heart Still Burns for You’, which is a love song, but not a sappy one. This is a love song that acknowledges that there can be small trips to the Underworld in any relationship and making it back requires commitment and determination from both parties. That song sets the stage for Cassar-Daley’s journey down, down, down.
‘Parole’ is not a tale of release, especially as it’s immediately followed by ‘Doin’ Time’. Both songs have lyrics that are literal but which can also be taken as metaphors, for situations we remain trapped in, sometimes because we can’t see a way out, sometimes because there is no way out.
The most affecting song on the album is ‘Heart Like a Small Town’. Cassar-Daley has one of the most glorious, emotional and heartbreaking voices in the world. Listen to any of his albums and you’ll hear how he so adeptly handles nuances in lyrics and tone, bringing something out of a song that isn’t there if you look at it on the page. In ‘Heart Like a Small Town’ he has outdone himself. The lyrics seem to suggest one interpretation: that in saying his heart is like a small town where there’s one way in and one way out, then once you’re in there’s no way out, that once you’re in his heart, you’re staying there. In theory it’s nice. Cassar-Daley’s voice suggests otherwise. This is the song of a man grasping on to what he loves because he needs it, can’t be without it, can’t let it go. This is Orpheus clutching on to Eurydice so much that he will go to the Underworld to bring her back but neglects to think of the consequences for her. In this song our narrator breaks his own heart because he knows that he needs to let go and cannot.
We then move on to ‘Drive in the Dark (Be a Man)’, and the title says it all, really: Orpheus is still in the Underworld and he has to figure out how to return to the world above. He emerges on ‘The World Today’, which is the sign that our narrator – our hero – has started to look outwards, to reconnect with life and people and his surroundings.
The return to the light is not uncomplicated, though. The rest of the album is not a skip through a daisy-strewn meadow, although there are several moments of light. This, too, is an acknowledgement that our journeys are never straightforward.
Cassar-Daley, a proud Gumbaynggirr/Bundjalung man who grew up on Gumbaynggirr country/Grafton NSW, has said that this album came after a very difficult period of his life. His father died, by his own hand, in 2019, and of course the events of last year created strained circumstances for everyone, and musicians in particular were kept from their work of live performance for a very long time (gigs are only now returning to full strength). Out of that darkness Cassar-Daley emerged with a brace of songs that are now on The World Today. Working with co-writers such as stalwart Don Walker, as well as Paul Kelly, Kevin Bennett, Shane Howard, Greg Storer and Ian Moss, Cassar-Daley turned to renowned and Golden Guitar awarded producer Matt Fell to create the album. Sonically the album is at the same high standard Cassar-Daley’s have always set; this commitment to quality is why he has 37 Golden Guitar awards, 9 Deadlys and 4 ARIAs.
The album closes with ‘I Hear My River’, which is another ode to country. By opening and closing with these connections to country, Cassar-Daley seems to be telling us that this is how he heals. Love of country is, for him, as powerful as any love of humans, and more enduring than most of our human relationships can ever be as it lasts our whole lives.
Our Orpheus is not like the other because he returned to the world and brought us with him. But he is like the other Orpheus because his story exists for others to learn from. Cassar-Daley’s journey to the Underworld was deeply personal, but it now belongs to us all. The message seems to be that we can look back safely if we do so with love in our hearts and with our feet firmly planted on the land we love. The journey will be difficult, and it will test us, but when we find the light again our hearts are fuller, our eyes clearer and our convictions stronger.
Troy Cassar-Daley has long been a beacon in our culture, for his songs and the way he delivers them. With this album he takes on not mythic status, because he’s still with us, but he becomes, perhaps, a warrior for the people. Out of his darkness we can find light, and the only thing left to say to him is ‘thank you’.
The World Today is out through Sony Music Australia.