Album Review: The Triffids – Born Sandy Devotional (1986) (Hot Records)

I was 17 when The Triffids released this album. At this age I was happy to be enjoying the initial furtive fumblings of my first serious relationship, had a good set of long term mates and was limiting the sort of trouble I ended up in to the sort that was considered as ‘oh he is just a bit of a lad’ rather than the ‘oh he got in with the wrong crowd’ sort that used to be wheeled out by the mothers of various ‘naughty boys’ I knew when the police turned up at their door. In summation I was a happy product of a happy childhood and although I did not realize it at the time, I ended up being eternally grateful to my parents for this. 

It was from this basis that, despite being in the early stages of an obsession with ‘indie’ music, I somehow managed to dismiss this album/band as sophisti-pop The Go-Betweens wannabes for no other reasons than a) the wonderfully expansive track, Wide Open Road, occasionally, if you partially obscure the aural access of one ear, vaguely sounds a bit like them, b) It sounded a bit cool to make the connection as both bands were from Australia and most pertinently c) vocalist and songwriter David McComb, had a lush baritone voice that producer Gil Norton (latterly of Pixies production fame) twisted the knobs upon to ensure it was lavished with glorous opulence.

However, the real reason for being so dismissive was that at that age I just did not have the emotional experience to understand or appreciate the stunning relevance to human existence. Here I use the word ‘experience’ rather than ‘maturity’ with absolute deliberation as the emotional responses McComb swirls his evocative imagery around are not of a manner that necessarily come to every one within a lifetime. If they have you are then more readily able to accept this album as the ultimate ‘grower’.

For instance Wide Open Road (see below) addresses the venerable subject matter of  lost love. However as is the case with most of McComb lyricism he is not just content with opining about how much emotional pain he is in. For him this is overtly passe and as such he add various different layers of imagery that includes hints to obsessive stalking (to the extent that he is prepared to cut out friends and family from his life ‘like limbs’) and by providing insistent imagery that no only accentuates his sense of desperation and desolation, but also hints at an understanding that he is to blame for living in a self imposed emotional vacuum.

Such imagery is perfectly added to with the the counter exuberance of the steel guitars, keyboards and violins that nibble away around the fringes of his angst like a particularly malevolent highlighter pen.

Wide Open Road

Wide Open Road became the band’s signature and without doubt it is truly the most indicative track showing how despairing subjects such as death, betrayal, loneliness and suicide (as in The Seabirds, see below,) can be portrayed in multiple fragments if the listener has enough emotional experience to interpret it. At 17 I did not. In my 30’s I had been slapped about emotionally just like most others and had been exposed to emotional distress of others and was more ready to accept the albums brilliance.

The Seabirds

Despite the sheer lyrical brilliance and mastery of evocative imagery, I am still unable to justify a rare inclusion in my ‘classics’ section. Initially whilst melancholy can be the most beautiful of all jangle-pop nuances, in this instance, with the possible exception of Estuary Be (see below), such beauty is just non-existence. Interesting, compelling, moving yes…but beautiful from a stand alone musical perspective? Definitely not. 

In fact the tracks such as Tender is the Night and Tarrilup Bridge, whilst essential to the overall low spirit that blankets the entire album, contains a high irritant factor with the cotton thin voice of Jill Birt failing badly in comparison to the resounding croon of the McComb vocals that surround it. 

Certain friends argue vehemently about this point of view, claiming that the imperfections of her voice accentuate the emotional frailty of such tracks and this may well be the reason for the usage of her vocals on such tracks. However, from a personal perspective it interrupts the flow of thoughts…which again may well have been purposeful from McComb as I suppose emotional turmoil never follows an exact linear route.

Estuary Bed

I recently described another album as being the sort you reach for when you feel deserving of being surrounded by beauty and warmth. This is the total apposite and is only ever considered a viable proposition in those moments when a sense of deserved maudlin is deemed necessary. It is for those moments when quiet reflection on how bad your life actually is becomes necessary.

Somehow this album always makes such moments of emotional exaggeration and self indulgence fleeting ones for me which in turn enables me to spend more time trying and failing to describe the sheer importance and brilliance of this album.

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