Blue Poles

Terrible Records

May 4, 2018



SARAH AVRIN // Publicist



We find ourselves in Jack Ladder’s blue period. A time for melody to take control. A time to rest between darkness and light. A time for romance, the kind that comes with tragedy and comedy, the sight of a clown lost in back streets after midnight clutching a rose and a purse and wearing no shoes.

From his home in the Blue Mountains, a healthy distance from Sydney, we find a musical storyteller half-remembering a line that once gave him pause: “The blue in the sky is an ecstatic accident produced by void and fire.”

Jack Ladder hears shades of blue in all these songs. He thinks of the painted blue face of Ferdinand Griffon, the lead character in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 adventure, Pierrot le Fou, moments before the dynamite around his head explodes. He thinks of the blue of the sky in the moments before dawn. He thinks of the blue of the harbour, and the artists who absorb its colour. He thinks of the blues, of course, tipping his hat to the generations who came before him. He calls one of his new songs Blue Mirror, and sets it up like an antipodean antidote to Moon River.

“Blue mirror / drinks cornflower wine / tells sapphire lies / in a world of steel”

Jack Ladder is a singular character in Australian music. Sentimental and sardonic, tender and surreal, he brings that warm baritone to bear on tales of beauty, love and hope. A master of musical narrative, he conjures lyrics that celebrate the absurdity and sincerity of the human condition in songs that never fail to make you move.

“Mix the vicodin with the methadone / no more sad days on our own.” – Susan

Jack Ladder is the kind of crooner you suspect David Lynch needs to know. He stands almost seven feet tall, too, so no one really comes close.

This album, his fifth, expands on some of the rich canvases that followers have come to expect after creations like Playmates (2014) and Hurtsville (2011). Once again a crowd of musical influences – the kitchen sink drama of 60’s Scott Walker,  the frenetic assault of early Brian Eno, the existential country of Will Oldham and the cold confidence of “I’m Your Man” era Leonard Cohen – combine to form an idiosyncratic sound that could be only his.

Jack Ladder has shared stages with some of the world’s most intriguing musicians, including Angel Olsen, Weyes Blood, Father John Misty, Florence & The Machine and more recently with his dear friend Alex Cameron across Europe and the US. But here, once again, he’s joined by The Dreamlanders, Australia’s very own misfit supergroup including Donny Benét on bass, Laurence Pike on drums, Ben Hauptmann and the one-man cabaret act, Kirin J Callinan on guitars.

The title comes from a painting in Canberra, one of the most prestigious occupants of the National Gallery of Australia. Blue Poles, an extraordinary piece of abstract expressionism by Jackson Pollock, entered the collection in 1973 after the Whitlam government approved its unprecedented $1.3 million purchase price. That was a lot to spend on an artwork, especially on such an exuberant riot of colour and activity, and plenty of people were upset. Adopting the title Blue Poles from Untitled 11,1952, a name deemed ignorant and reductive by critics, it has lead a tumultuous public life. Today the value has increased by so much that some politicians fantasise about using it to pay down the national debt.

The more you listen, the more you can hear some of the qualities that Jackson Pollock mastered all those years ago – wild splashes of colour, swirls of movement, competing visions spilling off the sides, the struggle for order from chaos. Here we have a musician sustaining an element of looseness, too, leaving him open to whatever happens to float his way.

It’s also the first album he has produced himself. Burke Reid produced Hurtsville, Kim Moyes produced Playmates, but this time Jack Ladder takes total control of his creative process. The nine songs that make up Blue Poles were recorded at Oceanic studio in Sydney, engineered by Tim Whitten (The Go-Betweens, The Church, The Necks) and mixed in Los Angeles by Noah Georgeson (Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom).

The album opens with Can’t Stay, an existential boogie set to a lazy groove. At one point, Jack Ladder borrows Leonard Cohen’s 1988 laugh from First We Take Manhattan, but it’s clear the Blue Mountains are never far from his mind. “I was imaging a covers band,” he says, “playing a Television tune at the Katoomba RSL on a Sunday afternoon. A long way from CBGB’s.”

The second track, Dates, originally written for Hurtsville, searches for meaning in the passing of time. Images swirl across the dizzying kaleidoscope of his imagination, from the winter solstice and wasted birthday candles, public stonings as well as cows grazing in the country with “four stomachs but no weekend”.

In Susan, a man who died in a car accident hopes to convince his wife to overdose on her medication so they can dance together once more. Who else but Jack Ladder could find poetry and sensuality in that, all the while making your body sway to the beat?

INM comes next, a paean to magic that invokes the memory of Bill Withers, complete with cowbell and attitude. “Levitation is easy if you know how to pull some strings,” he sings. “Breathing fire is simple if you’re drinking kerosene.”

Blue Mirror is an unsettling ballad full of mystery and longing. There’s sadness there, the disappointment of faded romance. It sounds like the sole survivor from an underground musical otherwise lost to time.

In the next track, Tell It Like it Is, we encounter a lyricist at the height of his powers: “My heart sinks like an anvil / Our love is a door with no handle / won’t you kick it down / before we both drown.” These are words that play on the mind, but you need to hear them out loud to appreciate their full potency, just as we did with Hurtsville seven years ago: “When a heart breaks it makes a beautiful sound.”

The next is White Flag, the first single from the album. This is a song he’s been writing ever since moving from the city to the mountains seven years ago. But in the music video – created by Jim Pillion – we find him in Indonesia, struggling with a special kind of captivity. Another song about love, he’s surrendering to prison that binds two people together: “I’ve got no fingers left to cross, each time I leave you cut one off,” he sings.

From there we move to the second single, Feel Brand New. It helps to know that Jack Ladder wrote this one on New Year’s Day, having gone to bed before midnight the night, entirely sober: “You’d think we’d hang ourselves with this much rope, but I feel brand new.”

Then on track nine, Blue Poles comes to an end with Merciful Reply, a ballad soaked in anticipation and heartache. Maybe someone found another song from that lost musical after all.