We have a right to be a little worried about the coming Jenny Queen album, Baby It Was Real And We Were The Best. Specifically, the body count on said album, at least if the first single is any indication.
The song, 50 Dollars Silver, opens on the scene of “a bright red mess” with bodies down and “an empty Peacemaker by the severed door”, all while the protagonist is still waiting for the smoke to clear.
As the slow-walking tale progresses, with a breathy sound that is almost late period Beatles-do-Americana and a setting that is decidedly more 19th-century classic western than 21st century suburbia, it becomes clear that this bloody event isn’t anything new either, with our (still alive) reporter declaring this “just another day around here”.
Should we brace ourselves Ms Queen?
“You know I haven’t done a body count,” she says, before confessing with a laugh that “I’m blithely unconcerned with the body count. I’m just George R. R. Martin: I just kill ‘em and walk away.”
In truth, far from revelling in the death around it, 50 Dollars Silver is a song of deep psychological weariness in a frontier town, in a man who seen far too much already and asks himself if he shouldn’t just leave and “ride away in the dust”?
“I just thought, wouldn’t you get sick of it? All the needless slaughter,” says Queen of her small-town sheriff. “And wouldn’t you just desperately want to get away from it, and fantasise about leaving it?”
If the setting is relatively ancient, the sentiment of the song is certainly in keeping with a modern take on the western, one that continues to re-examine the American experience through its distorted mythology. That national self-reflection is something which the Ohio-raised, but Sydney-based Queen has made something of a specialty since beginning her recording career in Australia a decade ago as a quiet singer of occasionally fraught rootsy country.
“[The song] probably is a little commentary on my feeling about the constant cycle of shootings in the US,” she says. “The western and the whole gun thing in the US is tied up with it for me. My father is a very pro-Second Amendment guy and he’s also the guy who I sat on his knee and watch all the westerns all the time, and learned how to shoot with him, and learned how to shoot responsibly.
“But, I think there’s something horribly broken in the US, not just gun laws but our attitudes towards guns, and it’s all tied into the way we view westerns and manifest destiny and all of that sort of stuff.”
You know, it’s not like we in Australia can be altogether smug about the cultural differences, even if our society is considerably less violent and a little less prone to a kind of Puritan righteousness that sees success and wealth as a reflection of moral character rather than opportunity.
Replace “manifest destiny” with “terra nullius” and parts of the foundation myths look very similar. Or consider the “prosperity gospel” beloved by America’s televangelists that also turn up in the teachings of our Prime Minister’s favourite type of Christian church, like Hillsong.
“Oh gosh yes, I hate the prosperity gospel so much,” says Queen. “It’s so non-Biblical, so cruel, so wrongheaded.”
As the discussion moves from country music, the Bible and the western to another myth, the Australian fair go (and hello again to you Scott M) Queen looks up and says almost with surprise, “I could have written a protest song”.
Well, yes, though you don’t have to call it a protest song; call it a song about someone weary of the killing and no one need know. At least to the 2020 presidential election.
“I think the whole [album] but definitely this song, exhaustion with the killing, the obsession with self, and everything that comes with that, is what’s happening,” says Queen, adding with a sharp little laugh. “And I wrote that two years ago so you know, jokes on me, it got worse.”
50 Dollars Silver is out now through ABC Country/Universal. Baby It Was Real And We Were The Best will be released in early 2019.