Everyone’s got a “fucked-up way” of being good citizens – or so Melbourne’s Cash Savage tells us on the title track of her fourth album. Some of the things that might help us feel good about ourselves are rooted in inequalities and injustice. Like, for example, voting in a voluntary postal survey on whether or not LGBTIQ people should be able to marry.
Good Citizens was written against the backdrop of that risible survey, the trauma it caused Savage’s community, and the aftermath: that even when you might have got the result a large majority of the population wanted, amid the celebrations and self-congratulations, the scars of being asked to justify and defend your own identity and humanity remain.
That trauma though has produced her most focused, cohesive record. Gone is any vestige of the faint Americana leanings of her earlier albums. The nine songs here are all brawling rock & roll and crushing ballads. It’s got more in common with Nick Cave and the Dirty Three, in Savage’s vocals and Kat Mear’s sawing violin, than Wilco – much less the Band.
But while the basic reference points are clear, Savage has never sounded more self-assured – or more Australian. Her voice is magnificent throughout, whether she’s gently chiding her country on Better Than That (“There’s a lot of people thinking I’m up for discussion”, she notes) or tearing through the pub-punk rock of Pack Animals.
It’s a voice that’s got more in common with Tex Perkins and Jeffrey Lee Pierce than Jen Cloher or Courtney Barnett – a deep, feral growl that can rise to the occasion when the moment demands – and her unpredictability helps invest the taut arrangements of the Last Drinks, one of the most powerful bands in the country, with coiled-spring tension.
That tension and power is nowhere more evident than Good Citizens’ opening track, Human, I Am, which hurtles out of the gates at a speed the rest of the album doesn’t try to match and redoubles in force with each verse. “Sometimes it’s hard to be when everyone’s talking at you, about you,” Savage declares. “I am human / Not your human.”
There’s a huge amount of hurt shot through this record. Savage asks whether she’s being oversensitive in Pack Animals, right after telling us she’s done with trying to express herself in a way that won’t cause offence in Better Than That. It finds solace in love, and Savage shows her capacity for great vocal tenderness in February, the most moving song here.
But it also kicks back in fury. On the graceful, swaying title track, Savage takes aim at, perhaps, a Sydney tabloid newspaper, which after the marriage equality vote was carried pictured Al Bundy (the fictional male archetype of the American sitcom Married With Children) on its front page: “Ain’t it funny how they joke about their wives as if they hate them?” she sneers.
Savage has been moving towards this record for a while. Her last two albums, The Hypnotiser (2013) and One Of Us (2016), were both compelling, with soaring high points. Good Citizens is more evenly measured, her band even tighter, and it’s her best set of songs to date. You won’t hear much that’s better than this in 2018.
When future Bruce Springsteen manager Jon Landau wrote his instantly infamous review of the man he saw as “rock & roll future” in 1974, the more personal, vulnerable elements of his enthusiasm were drowned out by his own hyperbole.
Landau caught The Boss at a time when he needed to be reminded of why he fell in love with music in the first place, and he quoted a line from the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Do You Believe In Magic: “I’ll tell you about the magic that will free your soul / But it’s like trying to tell a stranger about rock & roll.” He concluded that as long as the magic still existed, his mission was to tell a stranger about it.
No one would be so foolish as to predict rock & roll’s future more than 40 years later. But I found myself reminded of Landau’s review, on a couple of levels, while watching Cash Savage and the Last Drinks tear through their set last Friday to maybe a hundred or so disciples. Savage – barefoot, black jeans, black T-shirt, greasy black hair, black Telecaster, cowboy belt – may be the best rock star we’ve got right now.
The sparse crowd is initially reserved, hanging back several metres from the stage. Savage opens the set ambitiously, with the agonised slow dance of One Of Us. Within 45 seconds, the stage has been rushed. “We are alone / We are all alone,” she croons, and instantly, we’re not. She sings in the most gender-indeterminate voice the other side of Anohni: where Anohni is most often compared to Nina Simone, Savage’s deep growl and wild shriek is like a reincarnation of Jeffrey Lee Pierce, of the Gun Club.
This comparison is not new. Any similarities, however, are supposedly accidental. In one of those strange examples of convergent musical evolution, Savage claims not to have even heard the pioneering early 1980s punk-country-blues band until she became sick of being asked about their influence, and investigated them for herself. (“Then it was like, where has this band been all my life?” she tells me later with a grin.)
The Last Drinks include some obvious traditional elements – Kat Mear’s fiddle, Brett Marshall occasionally on banjo – and on beautiful ballads like My Friend, they’d tear up any folk/blues festival stage in the world. But theirs is no Antipodean alt-country try-on. By the second song, the murderous thump-and-grind of Let Go, Savage has dropped her guitar. She’s poised on the edge of the stage, death-staring the crowd, preachin’ the blues like Pierce and Robert Johnson before her.
This is the kind of classic pose only a true believer can pull off. Ann Powers once wrote of the young PJ Harvey (circa To Bring You My Love) that she was “bent on touching rock’s magical core”. Savage does this repeatedly, particularly as her set nears its climax with the closing one-two punch of Run With the Dogs and The Hypnotiser – careening songs that tear through the room and take everybody with them.
Savage’s presence and songwriting is matched by a wonderfully sympathetic band. Joe White, one of three guitarists on stage, is a standout with counter-melodic leads alternating with sheets of noise. Mear is possibly even better: she sometimes leads, but more often hers is the band’s locomotive breath; another rhythmic force propelling the songs over the tracks laid down by Chris Lichti’s bass and Rene Mancuso’s drums. And they can all sing, often in huge chain-gang choruses.
Just to be clear about this, no, Cash Savage isn’t rock & roll’s future. Who knows if there even is one? But whether she’s aware of it or not, she carries its spirit and history within her, and as long as there are performers with her conviction and commitment around, it lives on in the present. And after a month spent running from my own dogs, which had been barking and snapping at my heels, she reminded me of why I fell in love with it in the first place, too.