MARCUS AURELIUS, IT IS SAID, had someone with him when he would walk through ancient Rome whose sole job was to whisper in his ear “you’re just a man, you’re just a man” whenever the emperor and, not coincidentally, Stoic philosopher, was showered with praise.
Also not coincidentally, in a long list of despots, crackpots and tosspots that would rival a rollcall of contemporary Queensland LNP politicians, Aurelius would come to be seen as one of the “five good emperors”, for his wisdom, leadership, and moral restraint.
He had power, ultimate power at that, but mostly did not exploit it. He heard the word “no”, even if it was mostly coming from him. He did good and, relatively speaking, less harm. He did not however write, perform and produce a solo album.
For some artists, shedding the restrictions and constrictions on their art – be it practical, financial or commercial barriers, or collaborators not at the same speed and producers not on the same page – is some kind of musical nirvana. If they can write it themselves, play it themselves and produce it themselves, then release it themselves in the form and presentation of their choosing, they can avoid those petty arguments and quibbling criticisms and just make great art. Perfect!
Daniel Johns’ second solo album – after a solid batch of Silverchair records between 1994 and 2011, two duo recordings (with Luke Steele in Dreams; and with Paul Mac in The Dissociatives), a TV series soundtrack (Beat Bugs) and a dozen or more one-off projects – is not without collaborators. Among them, Peking Duk appear in Cocaine Killer, long-time arranger/inspiration/village elder, Van Dyke Parks, is involved in Emergency Calls Only, and Purplegirl narrates on his behalf in FreakNever.
But conceptually, tonally, and most importantly emotionally, FutureNever is an album of complete freedom and complete control, released on his own label, at his own pace. In its stylistic range it goes almost everywhere in the Johns repertoire: from slinky R&B and art rock to chilled electro pop; from self-distorting ballads and flamboyant pop to boot-stomping guitar rock, sometimes via knowing and deliberate references to his past.
Lyrically, as with his extremely well received podcast, Who Is Daniel Johns?, it addresses the crash and distortion of fame, touches on the self-medication and excesses that only a month ago saw him endanger himself and others while at the wheel of his car, and bares the contortions his mind goes through amid doubts and ambition and fear and loneliness and what Van Morrison called the inarticulate speech of the heart.
There is little sense that there was interference or diversion, or someone holding him back. For this reason, it feels as close to a one-man operation as you could hope for, or more accurately, as Johns - who turns 43 today - could hope for. Does that make it good? That probably depends on your tolerance or fondness for things that go just that little bit further.
With Reclaim Your Heart, the album begins with Johns’ falsetto and Anohni-style dramatic vibrato over piano and portentous low percussion that in its last minute rumbles harder against tense strings and quite febrile electric guitar. Cocaine Killer veers between a kind of dancing in your dark bedroom ballet and a pack walk barrelling down the narrow path. When We Take Over builds from literal hush and meditative piano, through pizzicato strings and booming timpani, to briefly soaring vocals, only to fall back in its last breath.
All three flirt with the florid, but flirting goes out the window with Emergency Calls Only, (Johns singing “I don’t need your bad advice/So please don’t try and understand”) where glistening strings, Hendrixian guitar, post-Beach Boys backing vocals, early ‘70s pop rhythm and vocoder-to-kazoo effects absorb and overwhelm a delicately wafting melody. And there is no space for equivocation in Stand ‘Em Up which pins you to the back wall with its force, treads hard on your feet with its hobnailed glittery boots, and somehow finds a country for grown men who like Midnight Oil and Smashing Pumpkins.
Both of those tracks would be able to trace their roots to different sides of Silverchair in their latter-day pomp as rococo claims on modern pop that startled then with their swagger, power and sensuality, and still strike now.
But even when the switch isn’t flicked to full-bore, you can’t settle in for long at all. If the liquid-hipped I Feel Electric comes across like Abbe May’s subversive spin on Ginuwine’s Pony, with Moxie Raia balancing the built-in horniness, and Where Do We Go put some chunks into a smooth R&B soup, Mansions spins through a ‘90s electronic wash cycle and D4NGRSBOY extends that into a darker, more rippling club. All of them in some way connected to Johns’ solo debut, 2015’s Talk.
And we haven’t even got to the final track, Those Thieving Birds (Part 3), the third instalment of what had been a duo of thoughtful, and in their own way provocative, tracks on Young Modern’s farewell to the ‘Chair, here quivering with only-just-contained operatic drama and another nod to Antohni to complete the journey.
Objectively, FutureNever is probably too disparate and sometimes a little too needy/demanding to completely satisfy. It feels like a release from an over-full dam that has had seven years of inflow, and pressure had become threatening. Maybe somebody should have said that’s a little too much, that’s not the best idea, or some whispered equivalent of you’re just a man.
But subjectively, I quite like someone prepared to look excessive and borderline foolish, whose target and risk is above her or his eyeline, and FutureNever is that. What’s more, it embodies something Marcus Aurelius advised: “Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human – however imperfectly – and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.”