My Criminal Record (Bloodlines/Mushroom)
As a statement of the obvious, Jimmy Barnes is at his best when he is being himself would seem to be painfully self-evident. Except that his career sales at least would suggest it is not a truth universally held.
A man whose solo breakthrough and enduring moniker, Working Class Man, was a collection of American clichés (“blue denim in his veins”; “He did his time in Vietnam, still mad at Uncle Sam”) which might have failed a Bon Jovi test, and whose late-career highs were a couple of soul covers albums which were deep in his wheelhouse of influences but could, and of course have, been done by a million other singers, has done very well indeed working someone else’s patch.
But is it really about the lyrics? Yes, and no. Not a prolific, nor a particularly driven songwriter, Barnes’ weakest albums have not necessarily foundered on his own stories: he’s not been much of a storyteller, and leaves the best of that to others such as Don Walker; nor usually on his commitment, for he sounds like he’s giving, indeed ripping out, his all pretty much all the time.
Rather, they have failed when there was an absence of reason – reasons for those songs, at that time, in that form, by him. They existed because someone needed something out, not because someone needed something said.
My Criminal Record, a collection of blues-based rock that carries with it a solid thump at all times, is not one of those failures.
While some songs feel general or generic but within this album’s context do no harm - though the Don Walker styling of the last beer at the bar ballad, Belvedere And Cigarettes, has more than nostalgia value – several were written around the time Barnes was writing his raw and pretty frank memoirs, Working Class Boy and Working Class Man, and touch on the same themes of inner demons, cracked-apart families and the harm you and they do.
Not surprisingly, these are the best moments here, nailing both character and emotion, and setting the tone from the title track’s opening lines of the record: “Well I came from a broken home, my mamma had a broken heart/And even though she tried to fight it, it was broken from the start”.
From there, his own inchoate frustrations, presented as thunderheads, smashed glass, kicked in doors and misdirected vehicles (“My life is like a stolen car, out of control/I’ve got no destination, I lost my soul”) are the fuel for pretty much everything. They are the core of the other Jimmy, “my demon”, who is patient and relentless and ever ready to wreck anything good.
Even in Shutting Down Our Town, a song ostensibly about the disappearing industries of working class suburbs like those Barnes grew up in during the 1960s and ‘70s, contains snapshots of the boy/man he was. “I started raising hell before I came of age/Running from my past with clenched fist of rage”.
Then there are two covers which bring an unexpected aptness and, maybe even more, truthfulness, as Barnes locates himself within them.
The first is a song which is as almost as misunderstood as Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA, John Lennon’s bitter, self-lacerating social critique, and addendum to his sceptical Revolution, Working Class Hero.
With military drums turning into low rumbles, acoustic guitar turning into something piquant and electric, but Barnes not ceding any ground to hyperbole or soft-soaping of the harsher hits, there’s a direct line from the Holden factory to the beer barn to a bloke declaring “how good is Australia” and another saying “you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see”.
That the album finishes with Springsteen’s Tougher Than The Rest, leaning a little too much into the not-always-loved ‘80s sound of the original, offers multiple layers and a closed circle.
After the catalogue of harsh blows landed on and by him, Barnes is evidently tougher than most of us, thankfully, will ever need to be. But the song’s real appeal has always been its vulnerability rather than any toughness: its plea to be considered, and its willingness to expose that need.
It’s here that Barnes wraps up his longer story of a man laid bare and prepared to ask for help: his singing controlled, the hurt revealed, the soul underpinnings of the song (and of him) obvious among the rock trappings, and most of all, honesty presented.
It feels as much Jimmy Barnes as anything on My Criminal Record, which feels as much Jimmy Barnes as we’ve seen, and that is as good as you can ask for.
(A version of this review was first published at www.theguardian.com)