Blake Scott’s ‘Niscitam’ Is One Of The Best Records You’ll Hear This Year
'Niscitam' is a devastating work about Australia, and the bad vibes that have soaked down underneath our feet.
It’s not just that Blake Scott, the one-time frontman of beloved Australian band the Peep Tempel, could sing the phone book. It’s that he could sing the phone book in a way that keeps you up at night, sending you back down rabbit holes of memory to investigate every bad thing you’ve ever done.
After all, the musician’s singular skill is in composing lists, creating entire worlds out of a slow accumulation of detail. ‘Carol’, the song that made the Peep Tempel’s name, is an assemblage of brief, perfectly sharpened facts about foiled desires and an ugly divorce. Other writers might have been tempted to flesh the plotting out. But Scott leaves proceedings thrillingly simple.
This is a man who can communicate an entire way of being in a name, or a single lobbed insult about Christmas Hams. There aren’t many performers you could say that about, either at home or abroad. He’s not our Dylan. He’s something stranger, and altogether subtler. Maybe better, too.
Niscitam Is One Of The Masterpieces of the Year
Niscitam, the first album that he has released under his own name, only shows the development of that skill. All the Scott trademarks are across the thing, from the sunburnt feel of songs like ‘Fever’ to the slow burn of ‘The Plainsmen’, which could almost be the sequel to the Peep Tempel’s ‘Constable’. But if anything, Scott has dialled even further back on exposition.
‘Bone Heavy’, Niscitam‘s opener, tells a story by starting at the top of a skull and running down to the heels, listing maladies both physical and spiritual along the way. The song is even more oblique than the most lopsided Peep Tempel song, spurning character and intent for these brief atoms of information.”How will I teach you that it matters,” Scott spits in closing. “When it never really mattered to me?”
Scott doesn’t point at things. He throws his hands upwards, palms out, and leaves the work up to you.
Peep Tempel songs were about a lot of things — beer-fattened masculinity; desire; history; international politics. The songs in Niscitam aren’t so precise. If they are about anything, they are about Australia; about where we are, and the bad vibes that have gotten into the soil under our feet. But Niscitam isn’t an essay. It contains no thesis statement.
A press release explains that ‘Fever’, Niscitam‘s excellent lead single, is about drinking culture. You wouldn’t be able to tell from the song alone, aside from a line or two about being a pig in shit. Scott doesn’t point at things. He throws his hands upwards, palms out, and leaves the work up to you.
‘Hammer’, a pub-rock song draped in the skin of road-kill, could be about anything or nothing at all. “You’re never gonna reach me,” Scott sings on that song, his lips curling around the words.
Little Miniature Cities
In a recent interview, Scott revealed that he’s been reading a lot of Gerald Murnane, the reclusive Australian author who has long been tipped as our next Nobel Prize Winner. You can hear that most clearly on the jangly album closer ‘Hillman Hunter, which’ calls to mind the whacked-out, sideways humour of The Plains.
But the Murnane project that Niscitam most resembles is not any of his books. It’s the complicated marble game that Murnane has been playing with no-one but himself for decades, a form of imaginative play that involves an entire made-up town that Murnane has devised and named New Eden.
Like New Eden, Niscitam is an entire, self-contained universe. Tracks appear to sing out to each other. ‘Love’ is the flipsde of ‘Magic’; ‘Bone Heavy’ fades into ‘Fever’ in a way that expands and alters both. And Like New Eden, Niscitam is predicated on a series of strange rules, each with their own intricacies, that seem forever just out of your comprehension. When Scott stops singing almost halfway through the eight-minute ‘The Plainsmen’, it’s surprising — this is a man who has traded his whole career on words, after all. But it makes sense, just about, in a way you intuit rather than explain.
Same goes for the ending. ‘Hillman Hunter’ is a slow process of dismantling, a series of half-sung memories around which the melody gets wheeled away like it’s a Hollywood backdrop. Before you know it, like a cane toad being boiled in water, you’re being sunk into nothing but the textures of Scott’s voice, and the slow wash of waves across the beach.
Such a pleasure is less immediate than the insults of ‘Carol’, of course. But it’s no less impressive. If the work of The Peep Tempel was a sledgehammer, Niscitam is a spell.
After all, there are few albums that end on a line as deranged as Scott reminiscing about a sandstone parking garage he once saw. And there are fewer still that end on such a line and still feel thematically whole, as though someone has welcomed you into their home, shown you how they live, and then ushered you out, the sound of the latch gently clicking into place behind you.
Niscitam is out now via Wing Sing Records.
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @JosephOEarp.
Photo Credit: Mia Mala McDonald