Sydney (via Melbourne) singer-songwriter Bill Hunt has released his debut album Upwey.
I use the title ‘singer-songwriter’, not as a descriptor of a songwriter who sings his own songs, but because this exceptional collection brings to mind that short, golden time during the early 70s when the Singer-Songwriter ruled – before the noisy boys in band pushed to the fore and pushed him/her off the front of the stage. It was a time when The Song was all, a rich time of thoughtful, introverted, often mysterious, always personal braids of melody, lyrics and voice knitted into a perfect tapestry – or more precisely, Tapestry. All that was needed was a wooden guitar, a voice and now and again a simpatico band of musicians.
Upwey gets its title from the Victorian country location where Hunt recorded with Matt Walker. There’s simpatico right there. Walker’s steady hand on the tiller guides the entire album organically down a deep and willow-hung river – the whole thing has a gypsy jam feeling, an informality reminiscent of (yet not as tightly wound as) Astral Weeks. The band – Grant Cummerford on bass, Ash Davies on drums, Kris Schubert on occasional piano and Hammond and Alex Burkoy on violin – play like they have grown up with these six beautiful songs.
Burkoy’s violin – veering to sweet country fiddle just where it needs to – gives the album a Dylan Desire feel and lends the proceedings a unique gypsy perfume. His playing in and around the lyric lines adds so much – almost like a female mirror to Hunt’s words or a country blues response to his call.
Opener ‘Everything is Going to Change’ is melancholy minor-key country rock and you immediately get drawn in by Hunt’s voice – high, lonesome with a keening edge that is American and Celtic and Australian. I make much of Hunt’s vocal quality because it is what drew me to his music first up – doesn’t a music’s ‘sound’ get you first every time? Across Upwey his voice moves from hurt, to declamatory, to bent-by-blues, once even to an almost Gospel frenzy. This is why it is hard to beat a songwriter singing his/her own songs: the music and words are their very breath.
‘You’ll Understand’ is a brighter song with a darker heart. A song of not-so-sorry goodbye. ‘The truth is, I’ve got another call to make/And I don’t want to be late…’
The bossa-swung ‘Sea of Love’ flows with ripples of lust and Desire – “Lips all sticky bittersweet/Like everything a man like me has ever been forbidden”. The lyrics here trip over themselves, tumble more like spoken words, which brings to mind (not for the last time on Upwey) the unique phrasing of Paul Simon.
‘Odalik’ also has those tumbled word phrases and much more. An entirely original song construct, it seems a cut-up of country pop, Spanish sketches, folk tango and church drone – all of which serve the moonlit dreamscape, verging on the dim-lit nightmare, of this remarkable song and lyric.
The almost seven minute ‘What you Choose’ has Hunt serenading the street-life in and around him, in an almost Van Morrison/James Joyce stream-of-consciousness linear rave. It captivates with pictures, some drawn by a child’s hand, some painted by a drunk Dylan, some harshly photographed by a journalist (all of which Hunt, the lyricist, is) – ‘There’s an old man walking up and down the street reading ‘Shop Closed’ window signs…/A dressing grown and a broken polystyrene cup in his hand/Sandals on his feet make him seem like Jesus to me/As he comes in closer I can see the yellow whites of his teeth…’
‘Song 55’ begins with the line ‘Some have a mad desire to succeed’ and ends, 4:10 later, with the line ‘Some have a mad desire to be free…’ (Hunt’s ellipses, not mine this time). The line peters out on that ellipses, and the album comes to a soft but sudden stop. There is a strong feeling of mortality, resignation and humanity. There is also a strong feeling of To Be Continued… (my ellipses again, this time).
Bill Hunt says of songwriting: “I want it so much to be like a trade, or at least a craft… I want it to be useful. I want to feel that there is some sort of mechanism – buttons, levers to push and pull like on a lathe or a drill-press, or a milling machine.”
He also says, of Upwey: “In closing, I will simply say that my dearest wish is that this recording serves no useful purpose, ever.”
Contradictory? Dark humour? Or the musings of a unique lyrical and artistic thinker. I stump for the latter, with flavours of the former two – Upwey is, at six tracks, a glimpse into a remarkable voice that is one of the most rewarding listens I have had for a while.
Bill Hunt writes: “Second album is in the works – I’m kinda hooked now.”
So am I, Bill. Kinda hooked.
-John Hardaker, WordsaboutMusic