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Love And Blood (Lost Highway/Universal)

While in theory an Australian roots/country singer and songwriter, the territory Shane Nicholson now inhabits, the company he’s keeping, is a few leagues above the standard local fare.

In sound, structure, intent and realisation Nicholson’s new album needs to be seen in the context of artists such as Jason Isbell and Matraca Berg rather than, say, Travis Collins and Amber Lawrence.

It’s partly in the music which straddles rock, country and a kind of soul that is stripped of groove but not feeling. It’s called Americana often enough but to me it could just as easily be called earthy: coming from somewhere exposed and dreaming of more, yet tethered by the real.

It’s partly in the sound (made here by Nicholson and Matt Fell) which, in some contradiction of that “earthy”, is smooth enough to fit in with classic radio tones of the FM years - the mothership for much Americana – but. in keeping with Nicholson’s work as a producer-for-hire, retains enough sweat to balance the polish.

Most of all it’s in an intensity of emotion and sombreness of storytelling here that at least asks to be taken seriously as something more than a batch of songs to make you feel happy/sad/moved to beers.

Which is probably not a huge surprise if you remember Nicholson as a man who used to define focused intensity even more than Something For Kate’s Paul Dempsey in the days when he was more inclined to rock than country.

Indeed, even when making light on Driving Me Mad and Hotel Radio – in this case mocking himself somewhat – Nicholson’s barbs are a little too pointed, a little too brutal against all comers (himself included) to be easily laughed off.

The portraits painted are more likely to make you wince a little at the observation, almost sorry for the protagonist (Nicholson himself?) who is admitting he is “a one trick pony”, who warns “it’s been a hard day, someone’s gonna pay for it” and admits that he’s not going down a familiar route again so “it could never be love, even if you were the one/I wouldn’t let it be love/not even if you were the one”.

Love ends up in a legal/metaphorical Busted Lip, even when it’s over (because “it never seems to end”) Nicholson says, having told us in Even If You Were The One that “wherever there’s love, there’s always blood”.

Ah, but if you don’t fall in love then where’s the next song going to come from? Or more seriously, if you don’t believe in love, how do you explain your desire to promise a new partner that “I don’t know how to save you from the things that you fear/I don’t know how to face you now/But I’m staying right here”?

And really, Nicholson isn’t believing himself on that L word in any case. As he sings to his child in All I Know, “don’t waste time your time on anything but love”, mainly because it’s the best waste of time there is.

Something else Nicholson will know is that the flipside to being in the company of Isbell and friends is that you aren’t going to get by with merely decent. It’s not enough to have a song as simply attractive but lasting as Bad Apple, as consuming as Busted Lip or as chest-out but still just vulnerable enough as I Don’t Dance; you want at least another seven or eight.

It’s going to be noticed when there’s something like the dust-kicking Song For A Sad Girl, which is good but leans a little too much on lyrical and musical signposts, and the shuffle country rock of Someone’s Gonna Pay, which ambles just when you think it’s about to soar.

Anyone else you’d let it slide, but the overall standard on Love And Blood is high enough to demand more. Which is after all, what it means to be in the kind of company Nicholson (justifiably) is keeping.

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