The Sleepy Jackson
Personality: One Was a Spider One Was a Bird
ou’ve heard this story before: multitalented frontman gets a band together, band generates buzz with legendary EPs, releases first album to considerable acclaim, disappears at height of popularity. Frontman re-emerges with a second effort, unsuccessfully trying to either innovate or capitalize on fast-fading fame. It’s the classic sophomore slump, right? Well, three years after Sleepy Jackson’s ballyhooed psych-Americana effort Lovers, the stars are aligned for a collective critical feeding frenzy with singer/songwriter Luke Steele and his revolving-door backing band as the guests of honor. But the Australian group has pulled a smart move by going as big as possible with Personality: One Was a Spider One Was a Bird but sticking with what they know, and the effort largely pays dividends.
From the opening string trills and chiming bells of “You Needed More,” it’s clear that Steele has recalibrated his sense of musical space (as well as studio budget) since Lovers. Indeed, Personality is bigger in every sense, employing wall-of-sound orchestra and falsetto backing vocals at nearly every turn. Single “God Leads Your Soul” begins with Beach Boys harmonies—down to the throaty embellishments at the middle range—but at the chorus, the backing vocals settle into a soulful Motown croon while Steele’s thin multitracked voice stretches around the melody.
There’s still a sense of vague American rootsiness here, but it has smartly been downplayed. On Lovers, Steele sometimes seemed more touristy than sincere, but here he comes off more like a Frank Black, using Americana as one of many vehicles to advance his confidently-constructed melodies. Even on “God Knows,” which bears the strongest resemblance to the last album, the unity of Personality is preserved when strummed guitar and slide fills give way to strings and falsetto in the chorus.
Steele seems most interested in building to a huge ticker-tape chorus for each of the thirteen tracks on the album, though he doesn’t always succeed: for one, the wandering psych-pop nugget “Work Alone” gets lost in the constant dynamic shifts, reverb, and vague harmonies. However, it should be noted that by stripping away the roots-rock and big melody, and by spotlighting the prevailing atmospherics, the song justifies the Flaming Lips comparisons that come up so often. In “Higher than Hell,” the same atmosphere is more effectively applied, crescendoing slowly in a haze of harmonies, distorted guitars, strings and bells in a fashion similar to something from The Soft Bulletin.
Underneath the big production, Steele writes some great melodies, and that’s the real reason that his sometimes dubious experimentations pay off. With the choruses to “God Knows,” “I Understand What You Want But I Just Don’t Agree,” “You Won’t Bring Me Down in My Town,” “Dream On,” and others seemingly tailor-made to stick in a listener’s subconscious, it’s difficult for the album to fail on a large scale. When the band misses, it’s often because they’re stuck in neutral waiting for the next big chorus or grand interlude. If it’s said that this is Steele’s Let It Be or Soft Bulletin, it’s probably only because he takes so many cues from those albums, but let’s face it: maybe catchy tunes and a clear sense of style should indeed serve as measures of quality. If you look at it that way, then this could be as good as it gets for the Sleepy Jackson.