Better In Blak (Warner)
There may not be much medical knowledge in me but I reckon ultimately it doesn’t matter if the knife goes in slowly and gently, or sharply and viciously, the wound opens up and the blood will flow.
Thelma Plum already knew this. Better In Blak, an album of so-easy-to-enjoy pop music that slices through with social, historical and personal blades within every song, makes that clear.
In the brilliant, brutal, burn the house down with everyone in it, final episode of the best thing on Australian TV this year, Get Krack!n - while regular hosts, the two Kates, were engaged in delivering a baby at high speed and full ridiculousness – Indigenous writers/actors Miranda Tapsell and Nakkiah Lui patiently, and then far less patiently, but at all times absolutely hilariously, explained why being “good”, being “reasonable”, being “feminine”, and asking for change has never, and will never, work.
One of the messages that bobbed to the surface in their spray was that all those non-Indigenous Australians who say they are supportive but would prefer not to feel too uncomfortable about past or present - "Be bright. Be breezy. Don’t make a white lady cry. Don’t mention genocide,” as Tapsell explained it to Lui - were “not like me” no matter how woke they/we might consider themselves to be. Especially if they/we consider themselves woke.
In the slow-turning, almost electro-pop Woke Blokes, midway through her debut album, Plum takes aim at some similar beasts, though in this case it is as much about men who talk the supportive talk to get a leg over, but run away from taking on those who inconveniently behave like shits.
“He's like kill the boy down the road/Who hurt the girl real bad/Unless he is my friend or plays in my favourite band/He says change the date, you should be grateful/You're only stirring the pot/Babe there's only so much I can do and your whinging's gotta stop.”
Not surprisingly she declares herself “sick of these woke blokes”, in tones equally wearied as angry, but then Plum is hardly surprised. As she says in a spry little stroll which nods to Lily Allen’s early jaunty-but-pointed songs, Don’t Let A Good Girl Down, “It’s kind of icky, the depths that you’ll go/To bring a good girl down”.
One of the album’s subtext is in another line from this song, “And I can take the hate, turn it into this … But others who stay quiet/Don’t get what they deserve/Where do you get the nerve?” For yes, Plum can turn both heartbreak and existential hurt – “Do you ever get so sad you can’t breathe?/Do you ever get so mad you just want to scream?” – into expression.
The harder part, but one she pulls off easily, is in giving not just that voice to others but that message that they’ve been seen and they’ve been heard. How familiar is this line from the album’s title track: “Do you know what it feels like, to get calls in the middle of the night/Saying you’re not worth it, you deserve it”?
Of course a lot of this messaging/seeing/representing would be worthy but somewhat wasted if the songs weren’t as attractive as the unlikely sunshine bounce of Not Angry Anymore and the sprinkled-with-hooks Clumsy Love, the doo wop-ish Homecoming Queen and the spring-time synth pop of Better In Blak, or the gorgeous and starkly simple ballad in the mould of Megan Washington, Do You Ever Get So Sad You Can’t Breathe.
That’s where this album - long-delayed as it might be; timely as it’s turned out to be – makes it deepest mark. Whether fair weather supporter, someone who’d like to join the fight, or the one who recognises themselves here, the songs inveigle their way in with a charmed existence.
What you do then with the knowledge it leaves behind is up to you, but you can’t say you didn’t know anymore. And Thelma Plum isn’t going to let you pretend, or let herself slip under.
“In 1967 I wasn’t human and in 1994 I was born/I’m still here, we’re still here … forget all the shit that you’ve seen/Put on that crown”.