The Jezabels built up a steady momentum in the latter years of the last decade. Since then they’ve broken the Australian mainstream quite emphatically, amassed a fair collection of ARIA Award nominations, and capped it all by winning the Australian Music Prize in 2011. The buzz around them in the British press reached a head early the same year, when they were labelled slightly left-of-the-middle of the road by the Guardian and filed unceremoniously alongside Florence and the Machine or, less favourably still, Paramore.
Almost two years on from when their debut Prisoners was released in the UK, this undeniable estimation still rings true. For this second effort, the band have recruited Grammy winner and mixer à la mode Dan Grech-Marguerat, who was at the controls for Radiohead’s In Rainbows and, more recently, Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die. The Jezabels never manage the regal cool of the latter, and would probably burst into flame if they got anywhere near the former. They have their rousing melodies and caustic messages, their harbour their own dark romanticisms, but they never quite locate the discursive equilibrium needed to mark themselves out as truly thrilling.
The Brink revolves around two immutable components: singer Hayley Mary’s impressive vocal range, and Nick Kaloper’s metronomic drums, showcased most aptly on “Time To Dance” where they drive a motion that is perpetuated seemingly by its very indecision and inability to arrive anywhere interesting. On the few occasions that he does change pace, accompanied at every turn by keyboardist Heather Shannon, he’s not bad. Mary’s voice ascends and maintains admirable altitudes, but is profligate with its upward inflections on “Beat to Beat.” To its credit, penultimate track “Psychotherapy” does the best job of keeping a grateful Kaloper away from his drumkit until about halfway through, opening instead with Shannon’s melancholy piano, allowing Sam Lockwood to swim in liquid echo and stroke a subtle acoustic guitar.
At times channelling Kate Bush, at others Elbow, The Jezabels are earnest proponents of the much maligned anthemic chorus. “No Country,” born of Mary’s desire to interrogate crises of arborescent masculinities, enters with some attractive subaquatic textures but exits clutching at Brandon Flowers’ coattails. Customary key changes appear with all the predictability of an underwhelming performance from a David Moyes team. There is a thematic ambition let down by unwieldy and artless lyrics about pick up trucks, Michaelangelo painting floors, and attractive lovers being ‘hotter than Peru.’ ”You were just like the government,” sings Mary on “Got Velvet” as she takes aim at the age of internet surveillance: ‘lying all the time.’
The Brink announces itself with talk of ‘complexity and accessibility,’ of radiant pop music masking the ‘twisted, weird and scary.’ There is nothing special about this- dualities of form and content are as old as art itself. Opposition is the very essence of dialectical materialism, the driver of historical change; any Maoist can tell you that. What’s not clear is exactly how these contradictions operate in the album, which largely privileges the familiarity and stability of symphonic, prog-inflected pop over its professed political and poetic ambitions. Expect The Jezabels to make festival experiences this summer, doing what they do in a perfectly passable manner. Just don’t expect them to foment a pop revolution any time soon.