Australian Ghost Story

Sometimes life produces the kind of stuff dreams are made of. Two days before The Paradise Motel’s first show in 11 years, Melbourne and its surrounding regions were battered by one of the most violent storms of recent memory, leaving a smattering of bewildered denizens and a trail of destruction. Dubbed the “Storm of The Century” by the tabloid daily, its sheer ferocity was an acute reminder of the threat of casual and monumental violence in life: the imminence of cataclysm, and the complete and utter ineffability of such events.

It felt appropriate. The Paradise Motel were a band whose existence was seemingly propelled by the grim knowledge of this fact. The second and last Paradise Motel record, Flight Paths, gave voice to that threat in one of its songs. “Gonna leave life a storm,” vocalist Merida Sussex muttered. A more telling acknowledgment was inscribed in the back of the booklet, which proclaimed definitively, “This can’t last forever.” It was a statement announcing demise (theirs and ours), and it eventually proved real.

The band relocated to the UK where a remix album of songs appeared featuring Mogwai and Lee Ranaldo; shows were played with Tindersticks; and the Greenwood brothers from Radiohead attended their shows. The last missive from that time was unexpected – a feature, curiously, in the Melbourne tabloid daily. Here, the patriarch and major songwriter of the band, Charles Bickford, announced their forthcoming third album would be about “hospitals and sickness”. I cut it out, and stuck it on the wall next to my bed. It sat next to a picture of Sussex kneeling on a floor in a wedding dress, looking like a dying swan collapsing into an eddying river. Then? Nothing. This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but with a whimper.

Eleven full years after they broke up, the band return with Australian Ghost Story. It’s not the same band, in literal terms. For whatever reason (sheer bloody hatred was the reason hinted at from the most recent show), drummer Tim O’Shannessy and bass player Matt Bailey have been booted or refused to take part. Surprisingly, it’s not the rhythm section that seems missing on AGS at first blush. Matt Bailey’s bass parts were one of the defining elements of the old band. His odd, savage, seductive and almost soulful grooves were the bedrock upon which the band was built on. Esme Macdonald, replacing Bailey, matches the intention easily and begins to make the role his own on songs such as ‘Brown Snake’, with its callously insistent throb. Similarly, young drummer Andy Hazel is a fine, dexterous addition, showing a technique both sinewy and serpentine on tracks like ‘My Sister in 94’.

Guitarist Matt Aulich and Sussex are, once again, the brightest stars in the musical firmament here. Aulich’s chilling bone-thin guitar tone remains intact, as does Sussex’s spectral whisper. They’re the twin pillars around which the songs emerge and, on ‘Goodwin and the Jumpsuit’, they finally trade in competitive blows, with spectacular, euphoric results. Campbell Shaw, a new formal member on violin, is simply outstanding, creating the keening backing with one violin that it took an octet of performers to produce on Flight Paths. Bickford, as ever, is credited as “various”, his real position: the ringleader of the bloody vaudeville on show.

But here’s part of trick with reunions – it’s about excising the extraneous shit that caused the break-up in the first place. That’s musical, as much as personal, and that’s the first thing that strikes you aboutAGS. The editing seems to have created a tendency for The Paradise Motel to become a “crescendo band”. The discursive, distinctive moments that characterised debut Still Life and Flight Paths have been jettisoned, in favour of songs that almost conform to a formula. It’s disappointing at first, but it’s worth remembering that the songs that made the band’s name, such as ‘German Girl’, ‘Bad Light’ and ‘Calling You’, follow a similar path. With reunions, often what matters is what works.

But persistence is the key. In creating a concept record, and one excavating Australian history, the Paradise Motel locate themselves firmly in a reality their early EPs and records seemed to strenuously avoid. The band were always anointed (and derided) as heirs to the throne of The Bad Seeds in part due to the sartorial sensibility, but also due to the peculiar gothic horrors Bickford conceived for Sussex to deliver. The worlds the Paradise Motel used to reside in were always bound by tragedy, but they were much less hermetically sealed than this – from dense, urban landscapes to California days, Joe Dimaggio and, memorably, being “bored as hell in Israel”.

In theory, the gothic template would translate perfectly to the tragedy of the Azaria Chamberlain disappearance, despite the narrowing geographic focus. Instead, the tone is much more personal and historical. It’s an interesting decision, seemingly thrusting the band into competition with acts like The Drones and Augie March as recent purveyors of that lyrical style.

The comparison, however, is erroneous. The Drones, in particular, are a band whose lyrical focus is the nexus between the dead heart of the country, a colonial past, and the acts of the protagonists in the songs. In AGS, geography isn’t a catalysing force, it just reinforces the despair of the real tragedy, which has always informed The Paradise Motel’s work from day one – the “sick moments caught in the wind sheer of fire” that Sussex sings about in ‘The Cops’.

In ‘Brown Snake’, Sussex poses repeated questions to the “dead heart”, but the land responds only with what we know: suppositions and allegations, obfuscation and emptiness. There are no answers here, and the terrain just intensifies the despair.

If you listen to AGS for the same sense of propulsive insanity you get from The Drones’ classic Gala Millit’ll come up short. The keys to AGS lie in two songs - ‘The Cops’ and ‘Familiar Stranger’. Here, Sussex and the band descend into the intensely personal minutiae of tragedy: the officer left behind who can’t get to sleep, thumbing through the open case, and the Chamberlain brothers remembering a familiar stranger, a ghost. The oft-cited musical comparisons to The Triffids are apparent on these songs, but there are lyrical parallels to David McComb too – the desolation and the isolation of the land refracting and reflecting the internal landscape of the protagonists. There’s simple power in these songs, with Sussex moaning, “I can’t get to sleep”, as the strings coalesce with the furious strums of an acoustic guitar. They’re immediate repeat listens, compelling and distressing in equal measure.

In some ways, a story best sums up this transition for The Paradise Motel. Earlier this year, I attended their reunion show with fellow M+N contributor René Schaefer, who confided that when the band first started, Sussex used to live across from him in North Melbourne. She’d often come around to his house to do her vocal practice in the kitchen over breakfast.

“My god,” I responded, ever the incredulous fan-boy, “how was it?”
“Fucking annoying,” he tartly answered. “I wanted to eat my breakfast.”

Australian Ghost Story feels consistent with that revealing anecdote. The early Paradise Motel were a diligently constructed band, revelling in the conceits and mythology of a band, whereas AGS feels like an altogether more human Paradise Motel, one less concerned with myth and fantasy, and more with trenchant reality as a more reliable guide to illuminate the immutable fact that, as they used to say, this can’t last forever.

As much as the album is about a historical fact and a personal tragedy, it’s also about The Paradise Motel. They’re older now, more alert to the random tragedies that can befall us in an instant, and their consequences. While less immediate than Flight PathsAGS ends up no less brilliant or powerful. It’ll be a close run for album of the year, no doubt.

JP Hammond
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