Apart Together (BMG)
In Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the musical which crossed paths on Broadway with Tim Minchin’s Matilda and Groundhog Day, there is in the central character a loudly tolling inner bell. Time is always in a hurry, time must be controlled long enough to achieve everything he can, he must, achieve. Time demands and demands, and time wins, early too – with Hamilton dead before 50. But a mark has been left.
In Minchin’s Apart Together, his first album of non-theatre/comedy show songs, time is the drumbeat too. But here it’s not a future looming with crunching inevitability that things won’t get done in time. Instead what drags like deadweight for some characters is time spent already, with things never done or not done enough, or that same time silently judging other characters for a merely adequate life.
“Time wraps her arms around me like one of those time-lapse photographic sequences of autumn,” he sings in Summer Romance. “Sending in her debt collectors to wreak havoc on the trees of Highgate Woods.”
Summer Romance opens the album wondering if this love has been made temporary or was born that way, and asks if that is something to fight. Carry You ends the album accepting that this love has ended but wanting to believe that its imprint will be indelible, whatever reality may say. The nine-song territory between them covers more than love, but the principles of hours and years pressing/passing remain.
A man wonders through Paris in Absence Of You, past the love-eternal locks on the Pont Neuf, then finds himself overlooking Central Park with a welcoming woman in his room, and life seems ideal. But all they do is remind him of the one who isn’t there, rendering all these experiences, all this time, pointless.
But then lives can’t always be fixed, as in I Can’t Save You (“from yourself”) where money, aid and best intentions disappear into an empty space that won’t ever be filled. And sometimes fixing – or here, giving in to temptation to take a salve you know is wrong - is good money chasing bad, as in I’ll Take Lonely Tonight (“in my 3.5 star boutique hotel/Where I will spend $25 on mini bar snacks and pass out on my own/And wake in four hours or so, soaked in relief, to find I am alone”).
As clear as those not unfamiliar situations are, the most telling moments on Apart Together are directly personal. Indeed, are directly related to the self-questioning of a middle-aged man at multiple personal and professional crossroads - and pondering how he’ll be remembered, as he does in detail in If This Plane Goes Down.
At which point it’s worth noting that Minchin, only a few years younger than Hamilton was at death, is in peak middle-aged crisis years. And if anything might ignite such a crisis it would be watching a show you’ve spent years working on be crushed by wholly impersonal film industry moves, or a musical you launched on the back of a major success falling short critically and financially.
Minchin has come out the other side of those experiences without pretence to a completely sanguine view of the world. Hell no: he’s bared the turmoil of asking himself, were those his best years pissed up against a corporate façade? Has his time passed?
The glossily buoyant Airport Piano, with its barbs at bankers and wankers and Porsche SUV drivers, and, especially, the formally grand Leaving LA, its lines heavily dotted with unashamedly bitter diatribes, give him the chance to satisfyingly unload with wide scattergun effect, and some of the few instances of humour on the album.
The barbs, and mixed experiences with the film industry, are a good link to a crucial element in the Minchin arsenal, Randy Newman. The American’s natural swing and unerring ear for a piano ballad, his easy combination of pre-rock and pure ‘70s styles, just as much as his humour and character-based provocations, have long been prime inspiration for Minchin.
In Beautiful Head’s light raunch with sharp guitars and If This Plane Goes Down’s simple elegance, in Talked Too Much, Stayed Too Long’s jazz/soul blend and The Absence Of You’s quiet hymnal, the great man’s influence is strong. There’s an almost classicist formality underpinning Minchin’s songwriting that can be traced directly to Newman.
Though from an Australian perspective, that road might have gone through a Newtown detour. It’s impossible to hear Minchin’s nasally and sardonic tone, its flipside of a surprising vulnerability and effectiveness with a tender song, the scope and structure of the arrangements, and not hear another Newman devotee here, Tim Freedman of The Whitlams.
The Absence Of You sonically and lyrically feels like a very close, albeit less cynical, cousin to Freedman’s Fondness Makes The Heart Grow Absent, but the vamping climax of Airport Piano and the title track’s glistening sheets of guitars, are just two more of many examples of shared ground. And there’s a symmetry with all that as Apart Together’s producer, Daniel Denholm has a couple of Whitlams recordings on his resume, and long-time Whitlams guitarist Jak Housden plays all the guitar on this record.
One thing either Tim could tell you is that for all “sons of Randy”, their biggest test may not be melody, structure or rhyme but convincing listeners to see past wit and bite to the emotion and attractiveness of their songs. Minchin, leaning on ballads, toning down the acid, goes a long way to doing that.
In the end, it may be that the most important thing for Minchin with Apart Together is that it separates the comic and the theatrical composer from the singer/songwriter. Not as better or lesser versions, but as something like equals.
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A version of this review ran originally in The Guardian.