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coverpic flag Australia - Full Moon 210 - 10/19/13

Gray Packham
La La Land
Walking Bird Records

For some of us, the wait for a new full length Gray Packham album has been an interminable one. In 2009, the man released the career overview, Shades Of Gray under the pseudonymous moniker, Mr, Whippy - a fine collection of the quirky best of his early cassette only albums of the 1980's and 90's. Yet that release contained just two new songs amongst the 47 tracks it offered, and those two songs represented the first new Gray Packham recordings to get a public airing in over sixteen years. His long silence has been puzzling, and has created, Bowie-style, a buzz amongst afficianados who have put forward many theories as to the reasons for this long lay-off and whether the silence would ever be broken.

Now, 'hot on the heels' of that 'hits' release, just a mere short two fifths of a decade later, news was leaked, amongst the initiated, that Packham was about to release an album, entitled La La Land, containing 15 brand new tracks for his patient acolytes to devour and savour.

On Sunday 22 September 2013, at the Grace Emily Hotel in Adelaide, this eagerly awaited CD stopped being the subject of rumour and became an artifact that could be bought, played and pored over in fine detail, as it was officially launched, making its way, finally, into the hands of the faithful.

On first listen to this new mature version of the artist, it soon becomes apparent that this is a very different beast from the Gray Packham of old. Whereas once he bristled at the hypocrisy of the world ('Jesus In A Suit' anyone?) and made it painfully obvious that he did not take fools gladly, he now comes across as an older, more introspective, troubadour, one who is struggling to deal with the trials and tribulations of trying to stay young in an ageing outer shell, and having to finally accept the harsh truth of Joseph Conrad's famous truism: 'We live as we dream - alone.'

Whilst he is still emulating his heroes in many ways - and there are the trademark attempts at Beatlesque structures and some echoes of Hitchcock (Robyn - at his least surreal), and the poppier edges of Psychedelia, (not to mention some Buddy Holly touches at times) - generally he is aiming at a more mellow, conservative song-writing approach, which suggests, to this listener at least, a kinship with those introspective British singer-songwriters of the early seventies. Those who stayed lurking at the perimeter of the music scene, too derivative to be trailblazers of a new movement, and too introspective to connect with a mass audience, but still creating carefully-crafted songs that to this day still maintain their resonance. For some reason, Brian Protheroe was the first of these to come to mind ...

Packham, in a break from the DIY approach of many of his earlier releases, has a full band backing him up this time around, made up of a veritable who's who of the Adelaide independent music scene. Members of The Garden Path, The Screaming Believers and the Dust Collection all make tasteful contributions. These fine players are, most often though, deliberately reined in, and those teasing moments - where it seems the band's restraints are about to be unbuckled in order to let it loose - result in conveying a frustrating hesitation which invariably gets the better of them soliciting only a polite solo which lasts briefly for a mere bar or two before a self-conscious retreat back to a position behind the imposing front man who is calling the shots.

In many ways though, this lack of musical fire deftly compliments the lyrical tone of the album - and its confessional rawness. It's an album brimming with trepidation and uncertainty. The twenty years between Packham albums, it seems, have been spent battling the demons of self-doubt nurtured by a life path that has never sat comfortably on the shoulders of this closet balladeer. Or at least that is the impression he wants to convey.

Despite the welcoming title of opener, "Good To See You" , Packham actually declares here that he has broken free, at last, from the soporific ennui that has had him in its grip for far too long. He confides in us shakily: "To hell and back I've been / Wondering if each day will seem / As though it is the one before", sounding like a first time attendee at an AA meeting, before letting his resolve weaken a little in the album's disarmingly gentle second track, A Simple Song, where he self-deprecatingly confesses: "Let it be said, let it be understood / Let it be known to all on earth I was no good."

In the lyrics to Lincoln Told Me he talks of his "lamentable moments of sadness" and being "sunken and wizened through madness", which is a state possibly caused by sitting alone for so long, just, metaphorically, watching the grass grow as life passes him by. This is not just some cod amateur psycho-therapy deductive reasoning on my part however, because the fourth track describes the process overtly - the song is titled Grass Grow after all - where the man who once sang about the less celebrated wonders of this world, about such things as Roger Moore's eyebrows and pink litmus paper shirts, is found bemoaning having to face "another day of heartaches / relentless, unerring".

By this point of the album you cannot help but wonder whether the tsunami of angst will soon recede, but the ordeal is relentless, and tracks like The Self Preservation Society ("it stops the hurt, stops the pain") and The Party's Over ("All the signs say we're getting older / We'll soon be underground") keep you caught helplessly in the album's undertow, dragged under and repeatedly battered by the flotsam caught up in the powerful surge of negative emotions.

Kilkenny sees Packham too worried to even seek solace at home, as he "walks through the streets of discontentedness", and in the next track, Upside Down, we hear of him struggling "under the weight of the load [he bears]". Churchill's Black Dog (a great title!) has him finally making it home, but only to be "lonely". Gone Tomorrow recounts him doing countless, pointless things in order "to keep from being alone", whilst Everything Means Nothing asks the listener the question: "Can you imagine my mind in such misery?". In The Way I Am Packham tells us that, "I'll always be alone beside myself"; and in the title track, the glum but exquisite La La Land, we find him seeking to hide behind "a smoking screen / to stop [his] screams from deepening". There's a hidden track too - and, as you would expect, the same theme continues.

Swirling amongst this over-abundance of maudlin, confessional self analysis, there are, however, tiny eddies of hope, almost always in the guise of appealing unexpected musical flourishes and textures, like a deftly placed vocal harmony here, or a brief moment of orchestration there, and, occasionally, an aurally pleasing rhyming couplet is delivered. These welcome moments lift you out of the sombre mood that this visit to the Gray areas of Packham's psyche has unexpectedly brought upon you, and brings you into the sunlight for a nano-second or two where you realize that it really is good that he is back in our speakers and making music for us all again.

This album is a public purging of the soul, a laying to rest the spirit of Mr Whippy, and, as a result, on his next album we should see Packham, fully adjusted to the harsh bright light of the world outside the walls of that self-constructed suburban cell he has been incarcerated within for so long, being able to focus his ascerbic insights once again on the foibles of a broader world gone mad.

There will still be plenty of us waiting to hear him when he decides to do so.

Copyright © 2013 Ken Grady e-mail address

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