The temptation for artists as established as Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson – whether those artists are musicians, writers or filmmakers (or visual artists) – must be, at some stage, to rest on their laurels a bit. They have an audience who likes what they’ve done so far – why not just repeat that? It’s lazy, sure, but you can get by on that for a while. No one would blame either Kasey or Shane for doing that. Given the success of Rattlin’ Bones, their first joint release in 2008, and their individual achievements, cruising would be acceptable. But, of course, neither of them is lazy and neither courts complacency. Individually both of these singer-songwriters have consistently proved that they are not interested in that. They progress. Each solo album is a different proposition; each an exploration. They wouldn’t know creative stagnation if they fell into an ocean of it.
So here’s the newsflash: Wreck & Ruin is not Rattlin’ Bones Mk II. It is a different album – musically and lyrically – just as accomplished as its predecessor, but more nuanced. Where Rattlin’ Bones was more staccato in instruments and voice, there is a softness in Wreck & Ruin – even in the more bluegrassy tunes – which suggests that Kasey and Shane are, in all their dealings, gentle with each other. There is a touch of melancholy, too, but we can’t expect that the restlessness that comes with a forceful creative flow will produce permanent contentment.
As befits a pair who have had four more years of playing together under their belts since their last album, vocally they sound more comfortable with each other. Their voices ebb and flow around each other, their combinations sounding so effortless that one can only imagine that they sing together every chance they get. Shane seems to have developed a warm croon to his voice that fits beautifully with Kasey’s tone. The album overall sounds romantic, even though the lyrics aren’t always. There is occasionally the odd – and rather touching – sound of two people yearning for each other while they’re in each other’s presence; two people who know each other well – who know the best and worst of each other – and always seek the best, so that is what they ultimately find.
The songs seem to come in one of three types: hillbilly, wistful and biblical (and there is some crossover). To be completely one-dimensional about it, the hillbilly songs are ‘Wreck & Ruin’, ‘Dustbowl’, ‘Rusted Shoes’, ‘Flat Nail Joe’ and ‘Sick as a Dog’ (and, to be clear, I’m labelling them ‘hillbilly’ because at the end of one of them Shane yodels ‘hiiiillbilllly’). These sound like they were pure fun to record. The ‘wistful’ songs are ‘The Quiet Life’, ‘Familiar Strangers’, ‘Your Sweet Love’, ‘Up or Down’ and ‘Troubled Mind’. The biblical songs: ‘‘Til Death Do us Part’, ‘Adam and Eve’ and ‘Have Mercy on Me’.
Most of the songs are short and sharp, with most not lasting even 3 minutes. But they don’t need to. The message is delivered, the story told, the emotion conveyed. Brevity is what experience can bring a songwriter – they realise that they don’t need flourishes when a heartfelt word or chord does the job and that, in fact, flourishes just distract the listener from what the song is trying to achieve.
Kasey Chambers is one of our greatest songwriters, of any stripe. She is a folkloric chronicler of life, love and the human condition as it exists in Australia. Shane Nicholson is no slouch either, but where he complements Kasey in the duo is in his musicianship and ability to understand how instruments can be coaxed and cajoled to enhance a song and a voice (or voices). On a fundamental level, she understands how stories work in music and he understands how music works for stories. This kind of songwriting and performing partnership doesn’t come along very often. It is thrilling to have it documented once more, in Wreck & Ruin.
Wreck & Ruin is out now through Liberation.www.kaseychambers.comwww.shanenicholson.com