The Sleepy Jackson - Personality - One was a Spider, One was a Bird

Since the release of Lovers in 2003, I have been hoping, praying, and salivating over the chance to hear more music from The Sleepy Jackson. Though it was “Come to This” that caught my ear initially, it was the dark, moving “Rain Falls for Wind” that cemented the album as one of my favorite debuts of the decade. The record was a collection of quirky, colorful stories weaving a tale of - yes – loves and lovers past and present, all held together by songwriter Luke Steele’s reedy, emotive voice. It sounds like a well-played indie formula, but Sleepy Jackson managed to stand out from the crowd by embracing the sparkle of a number of rock heroes of the past (most notably, The Rolling Stones, Gram Parsons, Velvet Underground, & Joy Division) as opposed to simply copying their style. The music was fresh and interesting, and though the album began to lose my interest toward its final moments, the greatness of the first few tracks kept me coming back for more.

That was three years ago, and much has happened to the dynamic of The Sleepy Jackson since that time. Since its inception in 1998, the Sleepies have gone through almost thirty different band members. Steele is, in fact, the only original musician left, as current drummer Malcolm Clark didn’t join the group until 2001, shortly after Luke’s brother, Jesse Steele, made his exit. Though Luke insists that their parting was not due to creative differences, it seems clear that Steele’s mood-swings, inflating ego, and battle with alcoholism all contributed to a number of band members’ departures. After dancing around a handful of potential band mates, Steele and Clark decided to complete Personality with session musicians, and though they remain open to accepting additional, more permanent musicians to their dynamic duo, they seem content for the moment to explore the different points of view that a rotating cast of artists can offer.

Personality is a more grounded effort than Lovers, and it takes a more intimate look at Steele’s hopes, fears and (at times) convoluted thought process. In essence, it accomplishes exactly what the title alludes to by exploring the beauty and the beast within the lead singer’s schizophrenic psyche. It took me a few tries to allow Personality to fully soak in; I was admittedly a bit disappointed when it didn’t strike me in the same fashion as Lovers. At first glance it was lighter and poppier, filled with strings, lingering melodies and gentle percussion. I was expecting more grit, more darkness, more surprises! But as I put the album on repeat and gave it another chance, I realized the beauty of the record was not in the twists, turns, and genre-hops that Lovers provided, but in the ingenious way that the instruments, lead vocals and oo-ahh choruses meld together just so, and the playful, easy-going flow from one song to the next. Steele has amped his Brian Wilson mojo up to eleven, but he also manages to steer clear of retro clichés by adding in the occasional odd dance beat, percussive pop, or even, in the case of “Play a Little Bit for Love,” a Santana-worthy guitar solo. While Lovers was a mad-cap ride from the Australian outback to the bright lights of Sydney, and off to shimmering beaches, Personality is more of an introspective journey, a stroll under the stars. Its refinement and subtlety are indicative of Steele’s newfound spiritual interests, his abstinence from alcohol, and his growth as a musician.

The first single from the album, “God Lead Your Soul,” is an ambitious, personal tale of the demons that continuously haunt Steele, as well as the God that has kept him afloat. This is one of a handful of tracks from the album that are flavored with disco-lite strings and Donna Summer choral numbers, with the occasional appearance from sequined polyester pants. I find myself bopping along, but it doesn’t quite come across as sincere, and though by no means a bad song, I find it an odd choice for a first single. “I understand what you want,” another disco-y number, is a bit more carefree and shows that even when Steele is being serious he still wants to make sure you’re having a good time. On “Miles Away,” a beautiful mostly-acoustic number, and perhaps the most mellow track on the album, Steele laments the time spent away from his family while touring. “We still love you at home, but you’re not here now.” Others like “Higher than Hell,” literally take you soaring into the clouds with their multi-layered verses, chiming bells, and warm vibes.

The track that has been subjected to my repeat button the most, however, is album opener, “You Needed More.” At first listen I assumed that the song was about a former flame, where Steele reveals his emotional triumph over past anger and frustration with the lyric, “Oh my darling, you don’t deserve me.” But then it occurs to me that the song is most likely written from a third person point of view, where the unstable lover is actually Steele himself. The line, “If your father is like anything you talk about, he would not be proud of you, “ is probably an allusion to local Perth blues legend, and patriarch of the Steele family, Rick Steele. When I finally made the connection, I smacked myself on the head and once again swooned at the genius of Sleepy Jackson’s ambiguity. Regardless of how personal Personality gets, it remains, like any good piece of art, flexible enough for you to let you own feelings and experiences soak in and simmer.

While Lovers was crafted during a particularly tumultuous time in the group’s history, Personality finds Steele more serene. Confidant and at peace, he seems able to step outside of himself and comment on his eccentricities without letting his music seep too far into the realm of experimentalism. This is not to say the album is without its own unique flourishes. Each time I listen to the record, I catch a new allusion or an interesting idiosyncrasy, and I fall in love with it even more. It’s been three years, but it was worth the wait.

--Courtney Wachs

Release Date: July 1, 2006 (UK) July 25, 2006 (US)

The Sleepy Jackson Website


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