Australian Ghost Story

"Australian Ghost Story”: it’s not as if the title of The Paradise Motel’s first album in over a decade wasn’t evocative enough. But just to make sure, the album’s first song sets the scene: “This happened one evening as a nation lay sleeping,” whispers Merida Sussex over a skeletal guitar figure. “Maybe we see things / Maybe we dream them.” It’s like the opening voiceover to a film, or a play, and for all that it’s often lazy writing to describe something as “cinematic” or “widescreen”, they’re both adjectives that really do apply here, given how atmospheric and narrative-heavy this record is.

My immediate thought on hearing this opening track, ‘The Witnesses’, was that it was about Azaria Chamberlain: “I shook the tent down / I placed the phone call / And the wind swept away the tracks,” go the lyrics, noting that the incident to which the song refers was “relayed through the visions of writers and newsmen” and that “the anguish cleaved a rip in the wake  of breathless haunted country”. 

And indeed, it turns out that the famous and still-controversial disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain from her parents’ campsite near Uluru is a lyrical theme that runs through this remarkable album. Immediately, then, you’re aware of a significant choice of subject matter – anyone who remembers the Chamberlain case (it’s one of my earliest memories as a child) will remember just what a huge deal it was. The case was a whacking great blot on the national cultural landscape at a time of otherwise burgeoning national pride (defined, as ever, by sport: the America’s Cup victory, the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane), and a reminder that outside the shining cities that dot the coastline, there’s an immense Conrad-esque darkness at the heart of the continent. A place where a dingo can snatch an infant and melt into a blank, inscrutable landscape, never to be seen again.

The story is rife with symbolism about the tenuous nature of “civilisation” in this country: there’s the helpless white baby carried off into the immutable desert by the savage (and quintessentially Australian) wild animal, and also – just as importantly – the similar savagery and pack mentality of the press in crucifying Lindy Chamberlain. Both suggested that the curtains we draw over the “dead heart” of Australia are thin indeed: you might have your Holden and quarter-acre block today, but it could just as easily have been you instead of Lindy Chamberlain going on an impromptu camping trip, suffering unimaginable bereavement, and ending up in jail for your trouble. 

This is the narrative strand that Australian Ghost Story picks up; throughout the nine songs here, The Paradise Motel’s quiet and understated lyrics extrapolate the facts of the story into reflections on Australia as a whole, redrawing the boundaries of the darkness into which Azaria Chamberlain disappeared and suggesting that it’s not confined to the endless expanses of nothing around which our cities rest; instead, it reaches into those cities and into much of Australian society.

So this is a dark record, in several senses. Night is a constant metaphor, and allusions to sleep turn up again and again. But it’s also dark in that it deals with obfuscation and refusal to see. Characters cover their eyes and look away. ‘Brown Snake’ echoes Midnight Oil in its references to the “dead heart” of Australia; in the song, the "Child of Oz" (Azaria herself, surely) chooses self-interment, “[dragging] the sand over me”. The sepulchural motif is repeated from Lindy’s point of view in the final song, ‘Prelude to a Saga’: “I buried my daughter / In the sands of her realm / All questions covered / By the whispering sand”. The implication is that the “sleeping nation” referenced in the album’s opening lines isn’t that way by accident; it’s chugged down several mugs of Horlick’s, drawn the covers up under its head and has been frantically counting sheep, praying that sweet oblivion reaches it before the dingos under the bed do. 

In this respect, it’s easy to make the intuitive leap that the darkness from which the forms that populateAustralian Ghost Story emerge is the all-pervading darkness of the Howard years. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s from the environment that bred John Howard and his ilk - a nation that places safety and comfort over truth and justice, a nation that’d rather believe that it must have all been somehow Lindy’s fault. The Australia of Australian Ghost Story is a dormant, passive nation, a country of silence and secrets, an empty landscape where terrible things can, and do, happen – and where the scattered inhabitants let those things happen with nary a whisper of protest. ‘The Cops’ depicts one of the policemen assigned to the Chamberlain case reflecting on his place in the world: “We are taken by the nature of our work to dark places ... I track them down / All my life / Right or wrong”. He could be just as easily be talking about tracking down, oh, I don’t know, let’s say... boat people. Later, the song’s narrator observes wearily that “the curse of this country is not itself / Because this country’s not itself”

In many ways, this album recalls The Drones’ Gala Mill. Clearly, this isn’t a musical comparison – The Drones and The Paradise Motel are pretty much chalk and cheese as far as their sound goes. But as with Gala Mill, this is an unmistakably Australian album, one that looks through the lens of the country’s history at its present. Interestingly, the two records were made in similar surrounds; The Drones decamped to a ruined mill in rural Tasmania (home of the Paradise Motel) to record Gala Mill, while Australian Ghost Story was made in a barn on the Yarra River near Warburton in Victoria. As with Gala Mill, a sense of place pervades this record – its stark arrangements and Sussex’s mournful contralto evoke emptiness and isolation. It’s a powerful and affecting album, and one with a lot to say about the country we live in. People would do well to listen.

Tom Hawking
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