Allo Darlin’, for the indiepop crowd that dream of Hefner reunions, follow the Wave Pictures from town to town and salivate over The Understudies’ next limited 7 inch single, are something of a last great hope. Their debut back in 2009, while referential in the extreme, mixed clear-eyed antipodean observations of the London scene with cardigan-clad payoff lines and a horn-rimmed wit that sat snug and smiling among its fields of ukelele and minor key guitar notes. Yet to the wider world their material remained somewhat limited by its specificity despite appealing with its pop culture detail – Capital-centric in the extreme, its name-dropping of Johnny Cash, Weezer and Woody Allen couldn’t quite save it from the be-sweatered ghetto.
On their second record, Europe, Australian Elizabeth Morris has led her troupe much further afield, both thematically and musically, to create a wonderful, evocative and suddenly magical set of songs that draw their centre from the bittersweet twang of The Go-Betweens, their adornment from a variety of towns, countries and times, their dancing shoes and smarts from the lessons of one too many minor heartbreaks.
Every song here, essayed in a strange and strangely appealing Irish-tinged folk tone by Morris, is a reminiscence, often set in a very specific place – “St. Kilda, Coolangatta and Bondi Beach” (‘Tallulah’), “the frozen sea of Sweden” (‘The Letter’), “under Capricornia skies” (‘Capricornia’) – or a specific year, a season – sometimes all three. They share a wide-eyed adventurism, a true sense of romance and a stoic wit that, while not ever particularly original or musically cutting-edge, are uniformly engaging and affecting.
‘Northern Lights’ is a Robert Forster-style jerk of twee love filled with bright optimism (“This is the year we’ll make it right/Jump feet first through the snow/We’re never going home”) and snapping, crisp snare sounds courtesy of drummer Michael Collins, that then dips and sags, Morrissey-like, in the middle eight, its heart aching with “…his hand in your hand/You finally understand/The sound of lines drawn in the sand”.
The idea of love twinned with inevitable disappointment is nothing new but when explained as if the listener is locked in a warming embrace with the band as on ‘Some People Say’ – a stumbling travel tale that gazes up at the night sky, scrapes a violin, asks “Will you ever listen to these songs if you’re ever lonely” before reassuring “You’re not alone” – it’s certainly close to overwhelming. This kind of melodic and lyrical richness continues on the luscious chamber pop of the title track, which juxtaposes Morris’ feelings of personal dissatisfaction with professional pride (“I’ve never felt so poor and I don’t know what I’m looking for/But it feels like we’ve made it”, she observes) and brings to the fore the central theme of the album – how physical displacement, like love, can serve as a filter through which you come to see everything as new and different.
It’s poetic, smart stuff that is best represented on album highlight ‘Tallulah” (a title that’ll be familiar to any Go-Betweens fans out there), a ukelele lament that takes place “…at the tail end of summer” and wonders, tapping directly into the secret fears so many people share, if “…I’ve already heard all the songs that’ll mean something… met all the people that’ll mean something”. The sun and the journey getting to its head, the tune wonders “…if you wanna go there with me/When I’m finished over here/If you’re not finished with me”. It’s melodically succinct, emotionally weighty and still somehow keeps beaming.
Admittedly not every moment will win you over, indeed a couple of key sequences are botched – the album’s opening line on the otherwise chiming, charming ‘Neil Armstrong’ is the worst on the whole record – “Heard you say they didn’t put a man on the moon/We just needed someone to prove all this floating’s worth doing”; while the opening line of the title track “There’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask you/How do you feel about Europe?” sounds more like a political enquiry than a personal one before rescuing itself with the simple, album-defining line “Does it surprise you on the continent you don’t feel the same?”. There’s also the niggle of ‘Wonderland’ which makes a return to London on a “crowded underground train” and comes across as both pedestrian and uninspired despite containing the evidently brilliant line “We could be polar bears”. Similarly the unsuitably aggressive instrumentation of ‘Still Young’ sticks out somewhat due to guitarist Paul Rains, usually the embodiment of subtlety, going way overboard, transforming a perfectly serviceable tune into a ’90s indie-landfill mis-step.
All sins are to be forgiven, though, for the endlessly listenable, rousing summer anthem ‘Capricornia’, a song that dives headlong into a skyscraping melody held aloft by the wandering, warm basslines of Bill Botting and a thoroughly irresistible drum part. Its puppyish energy, tempered with a hint of sadness that just makes the joy more tangible is the key to a tune that should join the ranks of Classic Indie Pop Songs the second it hits your ears. “I will come to you” trills Miss Morris “…when you fall down and when the lights go out/And we will set the world to rights when I find you/Under Capricornia skies”; you’ll momentarily believe that all things are possible, however sad the past suggests the future may be.
Europe is a wonderful record, a true progression for Allo Darlin’ as a band and for Elizabeth Morris as a songwriter. The further they stray out into the world, the more experience they have to look back on and the more times they fall in and out of love, the more and more potential they’ll fulfill. On this form the indie poppers will have to learn to share their beloved band, as Allo Darlin’ should soon be straddling the mainstream, giggling with glee, cheeks wet with tears.