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Hysteria (Sacred Bones/Inertia)

“You ain't been blue, no, no, no/You ain't been blue/Till you've had that mood indigo.”

IT WOULD BE A MAJOR LEAP of imagination to say that when Ella Fitzgerald sang those (Irving Mills) words to Duke Ellington’s elegantly swaying melody in Mood Indigo more than 60 years ago she was necessarily preparing the way for Indigo Sparke (whose name apparently came from a parental love for the song). But we’re on more solid ground to suggest Fitzgerald – certainly more than, say, the great Nina Simone version - was setting out some of the framework for the US-based Australian’s new album.

Not jazz, for this is more your intersection of folk and country, where waltzes and late-night ballads, whose arcs bend to the inexorable like the natural elements they reference, exist with plaintive songs that have the rhythm of a walk through the afternoon, and slow burners which imperceptibly gather momentum. But rather, songs working in the slow reveal and careful suggestion of the roots of hurt and anger, in tales that mask disappointment in elegant shapes and shades – those masks by definition deceptive because while they deflect attention from outside, behind them they can only protect us from the truth for so long.

It’s not that Sparke’s lacks the strength to survive the vicissitudes: she’s not just made it this far, but sounds capable of outlasting it all, even in Time Gets Beaten where she sings “Tried to kill myself but I’ve died so many times” with a mix of resignation, survivor’s guilt and a touch of self-derision. The troubled times however have not yet passed, not yet been “processed”, her storytelling a kind of status report midway through repairs.

The big sky twang and low-light hum, the tentative steps of the verses and the push forward of the choruses, the ambiguity of the title itself in Pressure In My Chest, capture both the hypnotic allure and the mixed emotional terrain of the album.

In the hands of producer Aaron Dessner – now acquiring, after Taylor Swift, a reputation for crafting an enclosed but welcoming space around songwriters who want to crack something open – Hysteria belies its title. Nothing ever explodes or drops away suddenly, no one and no sound ever teeters on the brink of excess or sinks into some self-indulgent morass. If this is hysteria it’s the kind that simmers, is absorbed and spreads like magma through deep channels.

The half-hidden voice and guitar in the first half of Infinite Honey come more into focus, with heightened tension in the latter and firmer footing in the former, but that’s as far as they need go; in God Is A Woman’s Name something that is almost like euphoria flourishes at several points, her voice riding an escalator up and drums cheering it on, but neither gallop off; Pluto circles a dark space with its piano, brushed drums, and Sparke’s measured pacing, but it doesn’t close in on you, a certain lightness in the air making sense of the line “I am alone but I’m not lonely”.

Even as clouds close in you can trot along with Why Do You Lie, which feels like a cross between Maddy Prior and Dolly Parton, and while Hold On creates more of a ragged enclosure of guitars around Sparke, her voice rises and falls in waves over that enclosure quite easily.

In the end, even as one subtext could be summed up by the borrowed line “I'm just a soul who's bluer than blue can be/When I get that mood indigo”, Sparke offers songs that bring the careful sombreness, the thoughtful understanding, of someone assessing past and future without the filter of naïveté. Musically as much as emotionally.


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