I Still Hear Your Voice At Night

The concept of loss dominates the mythos of The Paradise Motel. Lost opportunities, lost lives and lost time are central to both the writing and the career of the group formed by Charles Bickford and Matt Aulich in 1994. There is the legend of their birth in Hobart, the restlessness that led them to the mainland, and the chance meeting with vocalist Merida Sussex at the St Kilda municipal library. Then there’s the rapid ascendancy to local fame with their blend of Australian gothic imagery, ethereal waft and slow-core wallop; the relocation to London on the back of a clutch of EPs and albums; waiting for a way into the rudderless ghost ship of Brit pop circa 1999. The failure to fulfill record company expectations, the abandoned writing sessions, the thankless support slots and the critical silence all reportedly led to the fragmentation of friendships and ultimately the return to their homeland with little more than a few rumpled, shop-worn dreams.

The story makes for an Australian myth all of its own, lived out by many local artists before and since. But then the rumour of resurrection filtered through the music community in 2008, with new songs reported to be written and recorded in a string of studios. The Paradise Motel had lost members along the way. Drummer Tim O’Shannassy settled in Britain, while bassist Matt Bailey established himself as a solo songwriter. Still, things reportedly were going swimmingly with the newly assembled line-up. By the end of the year the album I Still Hear Your Voice At Night was in the can and the band was poised to re-launch itself.

The death of drummer Damien Hill before its release was a severe blow to the band. Out of shock, respect, or just plain helplessness, the disc was shelved for the time being. The only way through this heartbreak was to move on, and The Paradise Motel concentrated on the creation of the sprawling concept album Australian Ghost Story. The story of Azaria Chamberlain’s outback disappearance provided a myth equal to anything the band had tackled previously and possibly a metaphor for the tragedy that had befallen them. Released in 2010, Ghost Story is a haunted masterpiece – skeletal sparseness mirroring the unsettling ambiguity of its spooky thematic.

If Ghost Story exposes the bare bones, its predecessor is the meat. Its lush arrangements are more obviously the product of time spent in the studio. Many of the songs swoon with sea-sick string parts. The dark romanticism the band is renowned for is in place, as is Bickford’s oblique narrative style, which teases listeners with ambiguity and evocation rather than explication. Still flying in the face of fashion, the spaciousness and restraint of tracks such as ‘Bear Never Left Her Home’ recalls the classic era of 4AD Records, or the point where Art Of Fighting abandoned bombastic crescendos in favour of a subtler writing style. For a band that professed to embrace “the violence and the silence”, this record errs on the side of silence, with both music and vocal phrasing rarely threatening to explode.

‘The Exiles’, a song with an intricately baroque structure, cycles through several distinct movements. Duetting with Sussex, Bickford whipers and purrs like Blixa Bargeld in Einstürzende Neubauten’s quietest moments. Violence stays below the surface, yet it is an essential theme in several songs here. A mood of ominous calm also permeates ‘The Moonlight & The Scrub’. It not so much prefigures the coming of disaster, but represents the aftermath of violence, the story being told from the perspective of a murder victim. Bickford tends to write lyrics from the first person perspective of women at the mercy of forces and situations beyond their control, whether in the context of relationships, historical situations, violent calamity or tormented by their own mental state. Sussex inhabits these characters, investing them with vulnerability, but also a sense of reclaiming their experiences through the act of storytelling.

Aulich’s gorgeous guitar lines and understated piano buoy ‘Joseph’s Head’, which resolves in a succession of soaring refrains of strings, slide guitar and repeated vocal lines. ‘Dead Leaves Choke The River’ throws some brass into the mix and only just manages to steer clear of the kind of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink bombast Arcade Fire like to indulge in. More successful is ‘Shipped As Ballast’, which marries quietly dramatic verses with Sussex’s most enthralling vocal in the chorus. The song threatens to take off during a brief coda, but again restraint wins out, making the theatricality more concise in the process. Recurring phrases, “Have you ever lost a lover” and “This stays with me”, provide those all-important hooks which pull the whole thing together in the absence of a conventional pop structure. ‘Shipped’ is an undemonstrative tour de force. Its genius truly creeps up on you.The irony of female experience being expressed by a man, yet sung by a woman is not lost. To some extent, Sussex even creates a distancing effect through her spectral delivery, which prevents her being identified too closely with the tale she relates. Like folk ballads, the songs aren’t personal or confessional. They are literature, in the sense they reiterate universal themes through ficticious scenarios or re-imaginings of real occurrences. This approach to songwriting has been favoured by many Australian writers, like David McComb for instance, and it connects strongly to Australia’s colonial Anglo-Celtic tradition.

Absence, loneliness and death again are the themes of ‘A Memory Of Leonski’, its maritime mood and vaguely Celtic string arrangement spilling over into ‘The Legend Of Sailor’, whose lullaby tune is driven by a nervously erratic snare drum beat and a see-saw bass line. ‘Birds Of Prey’ is probably the most upbeat number on the album, and utilises the contrast between Aulich and Bickford’s duelling guitar parts to great effect, before the strings swoop in once more. Finally, the title track is a deceptively simple summation of the album’s themes, with its lament for an abducted child or absent loved one, whose advice to those left behind is, “Don’t think of me as someone you knew.” Its directness makes it the perfect denouement for a remarkably complex and considered recording.

Rene Schafer