‘Regional Echo’ by Jen Cloher is the best Australian song of the year. The way I see it and hear it is as a companion piece or even a sequel to ‘Flame Trees’ by Cold Chisel—a new touchstone in the way Australia feels, the way it remembers and the way it chooses what to value.
First, track back to ‘Flame Trees’, from Chisel’s last album Twentieth Century in 1984. Many would—and have—named it as the best Australian rock song of our times, and I agree. It’s set in regional Australia and co-written by Don Walker from his memories and imaginative notions of Grafton, where he grew up. The video was made in Oberon and the opening scene is a car driving through the bush toward town, driven by a reticent traveller. You can tell he’s driving home from the big city, for a visit.
‘Flame Trees’ is set in regional Australia but is not absolutely about regional Australia—we have plenty of one-dimensional songs to do that. It’s about memory and home and regret. It has a strong sense of loss and uses the heavy nostalgia so tightly held in old small-town buildings to compare the now and the then. It’s pretty much a classic Australian folk song in the vein of ‘Along The Road to Gundagai’ by Jack O’Hagan, and then Slim Dusty, in that it uses the motif of trees to signify familiarity and self; both are about the magnetic allure of home, the skies, the space, the quiet, the songlines and stories which are so reassuring, like a childhood blanket.
‘I’m happy just to sit here at a table with old friends,’ goes ‘Flame Trees’, ‘and see which one of us can tell the biggest lies.’ That’s reassurance and stagnation right there.
‘Regional Echo’ on Jen’s self-titled album of this year is perfectly named: it is about an echo from the regions reaching the narrator (the artist, the wanderer, the refugee to the big smoke) as she, or he, returns to remember and make a few big life decisions along the way. The song never uses the phrase that makes the title, but it doesn’t need to; the music itself, mainly a series of wiry guitar parts by Jen and Courtney Barnett, is very wide, very open. It repeats on itself, and it echoes.
She says she got the title from a line in a Les Murray poem and this is perfect symmetry too. Murray is one of those Australian poets who got really close to the dirt and the smell and the feel of rural and regional life. He is able to reflect on the regions and the way they operate from within (living with cows as he has for years near Taree) but with a more objective eye, a knowing eye. Like our heroes in ‘Flame Trees’ and ‘Regional Echo’, he seems to understand more than he always assumed his circumstances would allow.
Les wrote in ‘Noonday Axeman’: ‘It will be centuries before many men are truly at home in this country, and yet, there have always been some, in each generation, there have always been some who could live in the presence of silence.’
I would suggest that both ‘Regional Echo’ and ‘Flame Trees’ are also about despair. Jen is outwardly defiant in her song, standing firm, mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. What is she mad about? Blinkered thinking, thinking small. Ambivalence, ennui, apathy, laziness. She uses the small-town—any small town—as a metaphor for small thinking. Cloher herself grew up in Adelaide, which she counts as small, specifically in mindset. ‘Life had a strange amnesia,’ she recently told an interviewer. ‘No-one taught you to dream big.’
For the extraordinary video clip for regional Echo she asked her bass player Bones Sloane—who is from Goulburn—to go home and hang out with his family and old mates, and just walk around and be filmed. He’s the pensive character approaching the town by car on a foggy night, fingerless gloves tapping the steering wheel. It’s a kind of verite lasting five minutes, showing the open arms but also the suspicion and tall poppy syndrome that greets the weary driver, just like the actual trees in the Chisel song the bonhomie and the atmosphere of reunion are a warning. They can blind you if you are not alert. Be careful, Australia is complex. Especially here in the small town, miles from the coast, miles from metropolitan ways and biases. ‘There’s no change,’ goes ‘Flame Trees’, ‘there’s no pace. Everything within its place.’
Both video clips have lone figures walking the streets as sudden outsiders, encountering familiar faces and being stared at by suspicious strangers passing in cars. The similarities are uncanny. Both clips (and both songs) have a certain gothic chill about them which remind me also of the Australian vernacular in books by Gerald Murnane and Shaun Prescott and contemporary films like Somersault, Jindabyne and Beautiful Kate. These are all mediums where regional Australia is rendered isolated and secretive, and unwilling to yield to surprises.
The Chisel song is ultimately about a girl. The journey home only rekindles memories of her and what might have been. To ‘bring up her name’ back in the town where it all took place long ago can only end in tears. ‘Who needs that sentimental bullshit anyway,’ asks Don Walker, as only he can. Jen also rejects sentimentality. To her the Australian dream is not only fading, but ‘stolen, anyway.’ And her song is also about a girl—herself. Cloaked in metaphor and disappointment, perhaps, but still about her (and us) and how far she might go and whether she might ever be able to do what she is capable of doing.
Her images of regional Australia are superb, particularly the dead prawns in the wheelie bin, a ‘cocktail of stink’ but more particularly her bats swaying on the powerline, ‘wings open in surrender, this is how you die.’ Die by what, staying still? Staying closed to new stimuli? Staying dumb, staying silent?
Staying in your place, I think. A postcard landscape can be nice, but it’s nowhere near enough—’ . . . ‘I’m never gonna lose my head to a setting sun . . . I’m never gonna be anything more than what’s expected of me.’ The vivid hyperlocal images—something Cold Chisel’s songwriters were so good at and Tim Rogers excelled at in You Am I—ground the song in places in all our minds ‘out beyond the haze’ or indeed, for Tim, ‘underneath the Glebe Point Bridge.’ Yet the big picture is sweeping and grand; the past, the future, the dreams shattered and the ones still alive.
Chris Johnston is a Melbourne writer and co-author of The Family (Scribe). He is a judge on the Australian Music Prize (AMP). @mrcjohnston