Despite being perilously close to the upper limit of triple j’s target age range, I still tune in from time to time when the AM channels go static while I’m driving in tunnels or past the synchrotron on Blackburn Rd (speaking of which, should we be worried about this?). I think Tom and Alex’s fortnightly segment where Alex’s dad, Ian, reviews a new album is brilliant and I wanted to emulate it in reviewing Bernard Fanning’s new album, Departures.
One morning I played Departures for my own dad and then asked him what he thought. “It’s good”, he said. “Easy listening”. That’s all I got! There’s no way I could turn those four words into an album review. Not even Tom and Alex could pad them out with enough bad jokes to fill an eight-minute segment. After I’d dealt with the harsh reality that my dad will never be a minor celebrity on radio, I had another listen and got on with reviewing the album myself.
My initial reactions to Departures were negative. Having enjoyed Fanning’s 2005 debut, Tea & Sympathy, I anticipated another album filled with deeply emotive and catchy acoustic-pop tracks, like the ones that made Tea & Sympathy so successful. But Departures represents, well, a departure from Fanning’s earlier style. While Departures is incredibly emotional and personal, Fanning ditches the acoustic guitar for an electric one and has crafted a collection of songs better suited to a stadium concert than a campfire. Though clearly different, the album grew on me with each successive listen.
Listeners don’t have to wait long for the first sign that Departures is a very different album from Tea & Sympathy. The album begins with the hum of some ancient biplane squadron that crescendos into the distorted opening riff of ‘Tell Me How It Ends’. While Tea & Sympathy could accurately be described as folk or even country music, Departures is much more heavily produced and sits squarely within the rock genre.
The first stand out track on this album is number three, ‘Battleships’. Unsurprisingly, Fanning chose this as the album’s first single. The track showcases Fanning’s impressive voice with a falsetto chorus that, sadly, is far catchier than it is easy to sing. Its uplifting tone belies the lyrics’ sad tale of mistakes made in love and of a lover’s plea for redemption.
Track four, ‘Grow Around You’, is easily the album’s best offering. The glittery guitars in the track’s opening are reminiscent of Youth Group’s ‘Forever Young’. Like that song, ‘Grow Around You’ is soothing and emotional, and gradually builds to a textbook climax. This track is one of only a few on this album to survive the added layers of instrumentation without compromising the soulful, honest nature of Fanning’s music.
The remaining tracks on Departures are incredibly diverse. There are distinctive blues and funk influences on a number of tracks and a Hammond organ solo on ‘Inside Tracks’. The album also features a slow, paired-down song in its title track, ‘Departures (Blue Toowong Skies)’. Unfortunately though, all of these songs fail to capture the excitement of the listener like tracks three and four or indeed any of the songs on Tea & Sympathy.
A sophomore album is easily the most difficult an artist has to write and produce, especially when their debut album was as successful as Tea & Sympathy was. Departures will not scale the charts like its predecessor did and it may even be received unfavourably by some fans. However, in experimenting with a new style on this album Fanning may yet appeal to new fans.
My dad was spot on in saying that Departures is a “good” album. It is worth listening to, if for no other reason than to hear ‘Battleships’ and ‘Grow Around You’ – two tracks that demonstrate Fanning’s exceptional song writing ability. It will be interesting to observe whether Fanning returns to the successful formula of Tea & Sympathy with his third album. In the meantime though, I’ll keep tuning to triple j when my AM radio fails.