In The Ring: The Jezabels’ ‘Prisoner’ v ‘Synthia’
Which album reigns supreme?
In The Ring is a Music Junkee column in which we look at two classic albums from one beloved act to see which fares the best when they’re put head-to-head.
Today, we look at Sydney band The Jezabels and their albums Prisoner (2011) and Synthia (2016).
Argued for by: Jules LeFevre
With three wildly popular EPs under their belts — 2009’s The Man Is Dead and She’s So Hard, and 2010’s Dark Storm — and a single that had landed at #16 in triple j’s Hottest 100 (‘Mace Spray’), The Jezabels were heading into their debut album with more than a little pressure on their shoulders.
With producer Lachlan Mitchell, who’d sat behind the desk for all three EPs, they knuckled down in Sydney’s Attic Studios and carved out Prisoner.
Prisoner solidifies and perfects the palette that the Jezabels had established through their EPs. This is New Wave rock at its darkest and most fanciful; Sam Lockwood’s guitar swerves close to U2-level expansiveness at times, but is constantly anchored by Nik Kaloper’s thundering drum lines and Heather Shannon’s keys.
And above it all is Hayley Mary’s vocal, whiplashing across proceedings like a trapeze wire.
It’s indulgent, it’s high drama…it’s The Jezabels at their most pure.
Lead single ‘Endless Summer’ might be the most rambunctious of the bunch — and certainly, it’s an excellent track — but the highlights of Prisoner are further down the list.
The acoustic, ringing beginning of ‘Deep Wide Ocean’ is a much needed breathing space in a record that’s the equivalent of being tossed underneath a wave. ‘City Girl’ offers much the same reprieve — and also contains the best chorus hook of the album.
There’s also a lot to be admired about the opener and title track. Bursting in with piercing guitars and synths that are cut directly from Phantom of the Opera, it’s an appropriate forceful primer for the album ahead.
Prisoner is also arguably the only Jezabels album that feels like an entirely cohesive body of work. The songs occupy the same musical universe — and more often than not they bleed into each other, making the full 59-minutes feel like one great continuous ebb and flow.
If you’re a fan of the Jezabels’ early sound, then Prisoner has no lowlights; it’s wall-to-wall atmosphere and hooks. But if you’re a mere passerby to the band, then Prisoner could be a tad overwhelming — by the middle of the album you could be craving some air from the thick instrumentation.
COMMERCIAL AND CRITICAL IMPACT
Prisoner ended up being as one of the most successful local releases of 2011. It peaked at #2 on the ARIA charts, and was certified as Gold. It also took home the prestigious Australian Music Prize, with the judges praising it as “a cocktail of power and elegance, rising like a force to be reckoned with. Dramatic, creative songwriting is delivered with ferocity by commanding front woman Hayley Mary.”
It also took home the ARIA for Best Independent Release in 2012. The album remains the band’s most commercially successful to date.
The Jezabels have added two more full-lengths to their discography since Prisoner — 2014’s The Brink and 2016’s Synthia — but none have successfully re-bottled the lightning of their debut. It’s the most solid and consistent of any of their releases, and the three core singles (‘Endless Summer’, ‘Trycolour’, ‘Rosebud’) are the strongest across each of their albums.
It’s also the last record to be made up of the Classic Jezabel Sound — that is, the widescreen, aircraft hangar-filling sound that defined their EPs. Sure, it’s there in bits and pieces across The Brink and Synthia, but Prisoner was its zenith.
Argued for by: Jared Richards
Synthia, The Jezabels’ third (and most recent) album, landed three years after The Brink — the title of which proved prophetic. After the heights of Prisoner, The Brink felt relatively middling — while single ‘The End’ had that Hottest 100 appeal, overall it was too indulgent for the masses.
Following their tour, the band took an extended break, dispersing across several continents. In addition, keyboardist Heather Shannon had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer during The Brink‘s recording, unknown to the public.
When the band reunited — back with Prisoner producer Lachlan Mitchell, too — they were lead by a sense of purpose; listening to Synthia, you can tell.
As a name, Synthia reveals so much: as The Guardian‘s Marcus Teague writes in his review, the album is shaped by Shannon’s front-and-centre synth arrangements. Where Prisoner leant New Wave, Synthia dips its toe in the dreamy side of dream-pop.
Sweeping opener ‘Stand And Deliver’ establishes the album’s love of arpeggios and choral-synths, lending The Jezabel’s tendency towards cerebral lyricism and melodrama the mythical tone the name Synthia implies.
Not to say that other members aren’t present: Kaloper’s drumming is as clever and sharp as ever, while Lockwood’s leans back from The Brink‘s (sometimes excessive) solos in favour of haze and, when called for, aggression.
And Mary’s voice remains arresting: her control is astounding, whether its searing with restrained anger in ‘Smile’, submerged in synths, as in the somber ‘A Message From My Mothers Passed’, or soaring above defiantly in ‘Come Alive’.
While Jules argued that Prisoner is The Jezabel’s most cohesive work, listening to Synthia is more of a ‘journey’: while it can be a patchwork quilt of a listen, it also lets the threads of feminine oppression, control and grief speak for themselves, echoed in each song’s structure. It shows, but doesn’t tell, rewarding repeat listens.
Of all the songs, it’s ‘Pleasure Drive’ that captures this best, balancing the band’s at times alienating intellectual interests.
Inspired by Freud’s concept of the death drive, the band creates its sonic equivalent as the irregular synth pattern throughout keeps things ominous, while the chorus and bridges push Mary towards a full rock-band explosion. With the song’s hooks existing on the cusp of a sound, it reaches towards something that never arrives. It’s incredibly clever (and, to match, dissects what female sexuality is and isn’t allowed to offer), but it never points towards its cleverness.
That assuredness is equally clear on ‘Come Alive’, a song built off defiance against many oppressors — bodily, political, social. Building from a single synth loop, the band layer theatrics slowly: by the time it reaches its climax with Mary singing in French against a hazy, reverb-heavy backdrop, the dramatics are deserved.
‘My Love Is My Disease’ and ‘Unnatural’ are both massive songs we could imagine on Prisoner, except they’re far more digestible: there’s no indulgence to be found. There’s much more breathing room throughout, too: Synthia‘s an album of restraint, sonically and conceptually. Like previous releases, there’s a lot packed within, but here the band aren’t as concerned with signposting it.
We’re certain that there’s been more than a few people instantly turned off by opener ‘Stand And Deliver’. At seven minutes thirty, the song takes its time to build. So too does closer ‘Stamina’: both bookends are endurances through trauma, and for casual listeners, it’d be hard to invest.
‘Smile’ is a feminist protest song (“Don’t tell me to smile/You don’t know me/I don’t know you”) that sadly never caught on the way it was primed to. But perhaps that’s more telling on our need to have a Digestible Feminist Message, given that it’s angriest in its wall of guitars.
COMMERCIAL AND CRITICAL IMPACT
While critically acclaimed, Synthia wasn’t massive commercially. While both Prisoner and The Brink reached #2 on the ARIA charts, Synthia peaked at #4, and dropped off completely three weeks after release.
The Jezabels weren’t able to promote Synthia as planned, though, so it’s unclear what might have been. Not long after the album was released, the band cancelled its national tour as Shannon’s cancer returned. It’s a shame, as Synthia is stunning live — given its breathing space, its intricacies translate much better than previous efforts, which can bleed into each other.
As of yet, the band hasn’t released a follow-up to Synthia, though last year teased new music with standalone single ‘The Others’, which felt more of a throwback to EP days than an extension of the last album. What that means for the next release is yet to be seen.
Jules: Don’t get me wrong: I think Synthia has some of the best ever Jezabels moments – I think ‘Pleasure Drive’ is one of their best songs — but on the whole I think Prisoner wins out as the better album. And certainly I think its legacy kicks Synthia’s in the butt.
Jared: I suppose for me, I could never quite click with The Jezabels until Synthia. It just felt more accessible? I get that its legacy isn’t up there with Prisoner, but that album was always too overwhelming, for me.
Most of my experiences with The Jezabels have been live: they used to play every single festival once upon, so I’ve probably seen them 10+ times. Before Synthia, it felt like most songs were too similar, melting into each other. I like that Synthia is more distinct, it adds a lot to both their set and the band — it gave me the key to listen back.
Nevertheless, I concede defeat.
Jules: Interesting. I loved Prisoner straight off the bat. The CD was in my car stereo for about six months, just repeating and repeating. Yes, I bought the CD! How retro is that?! But I totally get that the songs can meld into one — which perhaps I don’t feel is a bad thing, because the overall effect is so good.
So yeah, I’m claiming Prisoner as a win for this one, sorry Jared.
Jared: I actually mostly listened to Synthia via CD too, in my ex’s car! Maybe the moral here is that The Jezebels are perfect driving music. Which means I kind of win.
Jules: No, Prisoner still wins. Soz.