Into the Bloodstream
Returning to music in the wake of personal loss, Archie Roach’s unique voice seems more important than ever, writes MATT SHEA.
Perhaps no other two Australian musicians are linked quite like Archie Roach and Paul Kelly. It’s a professional and personal relationship that dates all the way back to Roach’s 1990 debut, Charcoal Lane, which Kelly helped facilitate and would ultimately produce.
Nothing’s changed in 2012. Both artists are back, releasing new records within days of one another. And Kelly’s presence on Into the Bloodstream is readily apparent: he co-wrote and performs with Roach on ‘We Won’t Cry’, and ‘I’m On Your Side’ has been taken straight from his own release, Spring and Fall. The connection even encompasses the respective gaps between recording projects. It’s five years between drinks for Kelly, and the same amount of time since Journey, Roach’s last album of new material.
But while Kelly has been busy working on other projects, including a memoir and documentary, the 56-year-old Roach’s absence was due to much darker circumstances. In February of 2010, Ruby Hunter, his wife and musical collaborator, died of a heart attack. Just months later, Roach suffered a stroke that left him unable talk or move his hands, let alone sing and play guitar. Then, in 2011 and in the midst of rehabilitation, he was diagnosed with lung cancer; the cure involved extensive surgery. After such a series of setbacks, you could understand a reluctance from Roach to return to his craft. Indeed, it was only the persistent encouragement of his manager Jill Shelton and producer Craig Pilkington that got him back into the studio. Slowly, the urge to make music returned.
In that sense, Into the Bloodstream is an inspirational comeback. This is the sound of redemption, of a man who’s been given a second run at life. And with the weight of personal grief behind it, it’s hard not to frequently be moved by the album – so much so that it can be easy to overlook its faults. Into the Bloodstream is a big album: big on back-story, for sure, but also big on production and big on contributors. Everything’s blown up to the size of St Brigid’s church in Crossley, Victoria, where the album was in part recorded. And while the songwriting is frequently peerless, the same can’t always be said for the treatment: “more is more” seems to have been Roach and Pilkington’s attitude. At every turn there’s somebody blowing a trumpet, bashing a piano or belting out a backing vocal.
Most of the time it works. ‘Big Black Train’ is one of the best Archie Roach songs in years – a crooked, boot-scooting stamper powered by ragged organs, brushed snares and hanging guitar hooks. Or ‘We Won’t Cry’, which has Roach and Kelly tag-teaming their vocals before a series of swelling choruses; on an album full of joy, it’s one of the giddiest moments. And standing over the entire project is the vertiginous title track, which works itself to boiling point via Jen Andersen’s classy strings.
At other points, though, restraint is badly missed. ‘I’m On Your Side’ suffers from a direct comparison to Kelly’s take on the same song. On Spring and Fall the cut chimes and swoons, but here it cops an over-yoked arrangement and Vika and Linda Bull’s invasive backing vocals. Likewise, ‘Song to Sing’, on which the whole town seems to feature – it’s gospel, but without the orchestrated accuracy. Elsewhere, something as simple as the syncopated guitar rhythm of ‘Little by Little’ shouldn’t go on for six minutes, no matter how worthy the song’s message of personal self-determination.
It’s a shame, because Roach has illustrated in the past – most pointedly on 2002 LP Sensual Being – that his craft rides well in a beefier setting. And when things align on Into the Bloodstream, as they frequently do, the results are terrific. ‘Heal the People’ is a joyous prayer of hope for Australia’s indigenous population, while the heartbreaking ‘Mulyawongk’ and ‘Old Mission Road’ are two of the finest ballads of Roach’s career, both demonstrating the continued strength of his vocals; post lung cancer they might be a little more gravelled, but no less emotionally descriptive.
Into the Bloodstream isn’t the finest Archie Roach album, but it’s far from a return by the numbers. And with the increasingly vexed discussion over indigenous issues in this country, Roach’s voice and steady hand seem more important than ever. When Ruby Hunter died, it was a huge blow for Australian music; it would have been a tragedy to lose Archie Roach also. In that sense, this is more than welcome.