Released 8th April 2011. Review originally published 15th August 2011.
There’s always something which feels akin to voyeurism when poking around inside the minds of a band who’ve recently called it a day. It’s often more like a post-mortem than a post-script. In circumstances as up close but not personal as this the experience can also be mildly unsettling, the conclusion often being that the musical cadaver is, to coin a phrase, almost warm.
The Middle East are/were a group of musicians from Australia’s Townsville region who became unwittingly saddled with the term collective somewhere along the way towards mild home country exultations, going their separate ways barely a few months after I Want That You Are always Happy was released, a decision which based on the evidence here seems like it might end up being a matter of regret all round.
It certainly isn’t the work of a band who are holding anything back, and if it is to be a requiem, then its an engaging and brightly kaleidoscopic one. Lead songwriters Rohin Jones and Jordan Island have an appetite for taking directions now well trodden by left bank main streamers like Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, but their mood swings are seemingly less peth and more a desire to act as ciphers for a gamut of emotional states of mind, revealed gradually on a record that begins almost as if it isn’t there.
The pair shyly explore the territory of natural poets, whilst musically their co-conspirators help produce a fascinatingly diverse backdrop that spans folk, alt.country, plaintive mood music and baroque, old fashioned pop. At first things are glacial and introspective, with opener Black Death 1349 and the following My Grandma Was Pearl Hall stumbling into the daylight bleary eyed, the latter apparently delivered as a naked homage to Tom Waits’ most vulnerable moments.
Gradually light begins to separate from black night; Land Of The Bloody Unknown picks the bones from an ethereal banjo, whilst Hunger Song is a piece of strident hoe-down on which the eight piece remind us that cowboys didn’t just come from Montana and Dan’s Silverleaf drags out the tremolo and brings to mind idle reminiscences of The Go Betweens. Much – probably more than is necessary – has been made of the band’s submerged Christian beliefs, ones it can be argued which are being faced as directly as possible on the otherwise benign musings of Jesus Came To My Birthday Party, as much of a joyful affirmation as wandering round wearing a t-shirt with “On The Eighth Day..” emblazoned on the front. Like much of its compatriots its funny, sad and uncomplicated, and as unaffected as sagebrush. In the end – and sadly it would appear this is the end – the natural reaction to I Want That You Are Always Happy is to celebrate its life, rather than mourn its creator’s passing. At its best, such as on the masterfully understated Months – which it appears has been sublimely assembled from raw strips of an antipodean Gram Parsons – it candidly proves what most of the real philosophers knew all along; that death is just the beginning.