Bernard Fanning - Departures
Spotify: Bernard Fanning – Departures
There’s a certain resonance created when you name a record Departures, especially when you are one of the most celebrated musicians in a country’s history. World, meet Bernard Fanning, lead singer of the now defunct Powderfinger, one of the very best Australian bands of all time and makers of a couple of the best Aussie rock songs ever. He is also an acclaimed solo artist, having made the record Tea and Sympathy back in 2005 which spawned the mega hit "Wish You Well", winner of the coveted Triple J Hottest 100.
It’s now 2013. Powderfinger are a distant memory, a beautiful indulgence for a nostalgic Sunday session in the backyard around the BBQ. Fanning is 43, and although age has now become largely irrelevant in the music industry, he has a young family and is a settled man. There was always going to be another solo record, but the million dollar question was what path he would take. His folky, barefoot romp on Tea and Sympathy was a certain departure and a chart success (it went 5x Platinum in Australia), yet the harder edge that Powderfinger always utilised to undertone their best album work was wildly successful. Refreshingly, Fanning himself claims this record was not a reaction to any trends or past success but rather something he put together free from the stresses of pleasing everyone around him. This is his record, and his personality shines through on every track.
Funnily enough, it was written mostly in Madrid, where Fanning resided with his daughter and wife in the post-finger mêlée. I say funnily enough because if there were any better chance of creating a true departure from his previous body of work it would be in a country heaped in culture and musical influence, especially unique guitar sounds. Yet Departures is an Australian record. Even the very first song, “Tell Me How It Ends” has an intro strikingly reminiscent of “The Metre” and a riff that utilises that same dirty, low-down bass riff from “My Kind Of Scene”, both tracks off of the brilliant Odyssey Number 5. Certainly not a criticism, and once Fanning’s voice slides in to the bridge you realise his gift for melody and traditional pop-rock is not dulled by the absence of his former band mates. It’s a song laced with uncomplicated anxieties, he sings "hard as I try to be satisfied, I haven’t found it yet" in a statement you might find disenchanting for a man with a beautiful young family living in Madrid. It’s this honesty that ultimately helped the stamina of Powderfinger though, and a refusal to accept the status quo or to be coerced down lyrical and musical paths that has always been a cornerstone of Fanning’s identity as a musician and ultimately why he has been successful.
The best track then surfaces, Limbo Stick, a Strokes-esque patter at the start gives way to that startling gift for a bridge that he has, before the wall of sound hits as Fanning double tracks his vocals so he can keep his tone low and impactful. It seems customary now that he imparts his wisdom during his bridges, warning us "life goes slow, death comes quick", a sobering statement that tempers the cloud reaching sonic he is focusing on. Despite Fanning’s statements that his focus was entirely rooted in a project free of the expectations he’d faced his whole career in Powderfinger, Departures is grounded in what has clearly become an inherent pop wisdom. Australian rock music has evolved gradually since the mid 90s, yet if it were viewed in a time lapse fashion the change is quite startling. Where huge, dirty guitars backed by raw, animalistic vocals ruled the charts up towards the turn of the millennium, the temperament softened gradually to the point where there are now few mainstream bands still flying that rebellious grunge flag that Silverchair and Powderfinger wove so expertly. Airbourne are the last of the breed, with Wolfmother and The Vines having all but died out. Fanning is savvy, and Departures adheres to this.
Nowhere is this clearer than the lead off single, Battleships. Sounding more like Birds of Tokyo than Double Allergic, it’s an insanely catchy pop number that centres Fanning’s paranoid subject matter of the first two tracks and sees him reach a plan of action, a resolution of sorts. The only problem is a slightly lacklustre vocal performance, the anaemic falsetto betraying the words in a disappointing fashion. It’s probably the weakest track on the album, and with a chorus that states “Battleships, grey is the colour that I choose” it’s not hard to see why. Grow Around You, the very next track, takes this Birds Of Tokyo dynamic even further, sounding starkly like their stunner Lanterns. It’s not a criticism, he has this ability to meld a potent mixture of guitars in to an extremely catchy and coherent train of sound, a jangly effect that’s almost British in its origin, which of course makes it all the more Australian. Jumping from steely will to protector now, Fanning becomes protective father, master of his castle, true husband and father.
It’s this song that seems to break the shackles. Drake is a much more confident number, a throbbing bass line and a nicely distorted tune rings out as Fanning exclaims "as the light flickers out on the beacon of hope, throw a bone to the kid on the ropes". It’s nice to see he isn’t the one despairing anymore, and a positive vibe descends. Zero Sum Game even sounds like The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Fanning swaggers like Keidis and Jagger through a bass groove that gives way to another catchy chorus.
The only slight downside on the overall dynamic of the record is the hidden touches and dustings that Fanning has added here and there. In a recent interview he said he wanted to discover Garage Band, and spent a lot of time working with drum machines creating his own loops. This is all fine, and it works nicely, but his work with Garage Band has resulted in some odd sounds creeping in, such as the cowbell during the bridge of Limbo Stick, or the organs in Zero Sum Game which cheapen the experience. The hip hop beat at the start of Battleships feels hollow as well, as though he felt he needed an ‘edge’ to make it immediately discernible. It’s nice, this experimentation, it’s akin to learning a new language. It feels rewarding at the time, but when you eventually realise it is too hard and give up you look back on it and realise you didn’t make any progress and you were ultimately quite terrible at it. Stick to the guitars Bernard.
Special mention must be made of the song Departures (Blue ToowongSkies). Not long after Powderfinger split, Fanning’s father passed away. If you were extremely cynical you’d pass it off as the stock standard ‘slow’ song, but it is so much more, a lovely time piece about his beloved home town and the family members he has lost, namely his father and his brother. An information laden song, but in the end a positive one, a form of subtle therapy that Fanning may not have even realised he was practising. When he sings "You’re right where you belong/ beneath blue Toowong skies" a sort of closure has been dealt, maybe even a clemency he has bestowed upon himself. With such a disordered start, this is the true nucleus of the record and its subject matter. Fanning slowly achieves grace and serenity, and once he does, the shackles are fully lifted and his personality shines through on the final 3 tracks, especially Here Comes The Sadist, a thoroughly upbeat song where Fanning waxes "all this talk about contagion / but the sadist will need saving when the curtain comes down", before a horn section stumbles in out of left field and turns everything up to 11. Wonderful song.
7/10 Departures is not a curious record. It holds no journey that hasn’t been made a thousand times over. It bears no new musical fruits, it doesn’t hide in the closet and jump at you. It’s such an honest body of work; a man sitting down and just writing what is in his head and how it feels in his body. As the listener you can see things unfolding in front of you but you struggle to feel them, and that’s why Bernard Fanning is a great front man but a less than ideal solo artist. Only occasionally does he lack the personality to truly be a force in a song, but these misses are glaring. Despite this, he is a consummate musician and, whether he likes to admit it or not, a student of Australian pop rock, and as such knows how to craft one hell of a catchy record. This will be spun heavily if you buy it, don’t worry about that.