“Your love is so successful/It’s perfect, it’s synthetic.” Wryly funny on first utterance, by the time HTRK’s Jonnine Standish is done blankly repeating it the line’s not funny at all. With each repetition the gloom grows, layering like sediment in a fossil record.
Right across HTRK’s 2011 record Work (work, work) – which the song, ‘Synthetik’, is on – lyrical repetition is used to hypnotise then oppress. Swirling in the undercurrents of sexual obsession and emptiness, the record curls around you like a fog beneath the pall of which anything is permitted, communicating the swoon of surrender as well as the sick aftertaste of actions that didn’t feel very much like decisions.
So when Standish sings, “This time, I’m going to love you much better” on Psychic 9-5 Club’s opening track ‘Give It Up’, there is a frisson of dread in waiting for her words, so full of coquettish promise, to grind themselves into a regrettable carnal contract with a thankless future. But something else happens. The promise, repeated, gains resolve instead of draining of it, and blooms with romance. Positive things seem possible. Something has changed.
As HTRK followers know, bass player Sean Stewart took his life as Work… was being recorded. If that record was Standish and Nigel Yang moving through the pain, Psychic 9-5 Club is the product of coming out on the other side, written after the grief had abated.
That’s the official line in the press release, anyway, and one that’s fairly hard to argue given Work… enclosed us in a disorienting, haze-filled room, where Psychic 9-5 Club finds the door and walks into the day, aerated by big healthy gulps of fresh air. Percolating more to the surface are the influences that were always there – the trip-hop duskiness of Massive Attack, the doe-eyed soul of Everything but the Girl, the detached smoulder of Sade – though previously smothered by the stifling atmospheres that made it hard to hear anything but HTRK.
It’s wise to not drink too much of the promo Kool-Aid though. Publicity folk like nothing more than biographical epiphanies to feed to industry folk who, in turn, take off sprinting with the “It’s a new chapter for the band!” angle. Really, the progression from Marry Me Tonight’s sardonic noise-rock to the funereal stupour of Work… to the lustrous minimalism of Psychic 9-5 Club could equally be about growing up, shaking off the posturing of youth and having the confidence to pare things back and own the rawness left exposed. It takes age and assuredness to confess to a “healthy dose of inner peace,” as Standish does on ‘Blue Sunshine’, her honeyed tones reclining like the self-satisfied stretch of a feline.
In any case, Psychic 9-5 Club is defined more by open spaces than light-filled ones … and space can be a dark place. When HTRK played their new material at Sydney’s cavernous Carriageworks last winter, no punters left talking about the sunny new songs. As the gig progressed the crowd thinned, with those remaining nurturing the paranoid fantasies HTRK shows reliably induce. The scaffolding the duo erected was webbed with bleakly encompassing dub and gleaming shards of synth, rarely more than a few descending notes in a song. “I’m in love with myself,” looped Standish, memorably, on ‘Wet Dream’ – an inversion of the insult that was on quick draw in the quivers of bitchy teenage girls when I was at high school (loving yourself, of course, being the greatest sin). When the song is released, I resolved at Carriageworks, I’ll unravel its haiku-like frugality.
As it turns out, I didn’t. Because here’s the rub: these songs offer fragments, images and transient thoughts – beautiful fragments, yes, and evocative images (“Borrowed light from motel/Bones go DayGlo”) – but disjointed all the same. “It double shifts my time all the time,” Standish also sings on ‘Wet Dream’, and “If you’ve got the crime/I’m on the scene for air.” No matter how many listens I log, I can’t pull those threads together and my inability to do so sullies the song.
On Work…, lyrical repetition mirrored obsessive thoughts. It worked. But repetition can backfire, especially when you can make out every word, levitating alone, presupposing import. Impossible to ignore, impossible to identify with; you can feel like those words are flapping about uselessly … or you are, trying to divine their meaning.
Standish is no longer intoning sullenly from the fringes like a shift-working dominatrix – she is singing to us, for us, high in a mix that features rather than fights her voice. Perhaps this is why it’s frustrating to only connect with slivers of songs before they slip away? Perhaps her shrouded lyrics are compensating for her new visibility. Perhaps one day they will all make sense anyway, like Leonard Cohen after you read The Bible.
But, for now, the best moments are when the lyrics connect simply: as on ‘Blue Sunshine (“Were you born with beautiful days, or did you find them along the way?”) but most of all on ‘Chinatown Style’, the song that entwines Psychic 9-5 Club’s most transcendent elements, the bass murmuring supportively as Standish sings, with such sweetly pitched c’est la vie, “You know, I got/Mood swings that I got no control of.” And, with just a subtle change in pitch and a longer-held note, a grey-sketched landscape floods with yellows and pinks, blues and greens, as though she is spending on colour the credit stored during all those years of achromatic restraint.