It’s taken nearly 10 years for The Jezabels’ compositions to catch up with their talents and ambition. They’ve always had the tools at their disposal but their best material seemed elusive. Like Rodin sculpting from sweet potato.
There has, of course, been moments or true brilliance. Flashback to ‘Hurt Me’ in 2009 and you’re struck by the possibility of it being one of the most epic Australian pop songs of all time. ‘Endless Summer’ is in the same ballpark. Their sound exists in a vacuum, detached from genre and influence. No one else sounds like them.
There’s no doubt that what followed was sheer pop efficiency (see ‘Look of Love’), but were there songs that took you by the throat? True believers (such as myself) yearned for justification to keep them on that high pedestal. Their second record was accurately called The Brink.
Thank Christ for Synthia. The Jezabels’ third record elevates them, transforms the four-piece into the stadium act they’ve promised to be. Tonight at the University of Newcastle we’re treated to such a performance, grandiose in both sonic and emotional scope. They now have the songs to take an audience on a journey, to be both wrenching and sublime. In 2016 you can dance and cry at a Jezabels show.
Dressed in black, they emerge amongst billowing smoke and pulsing electronic blips, indicative of their penchant for raw theatricalities. Singer Hayley Mary doesn’t appear until the opening throes of Synthia’s first track, ‘Stand and Deliver’, with its childlike spoken word intro and slow-build to thundering beauty. Then Synthia’s second track, ‘My Love is My Disease’, arrives, a song that three years ago might not have been arranged and propelled with such speed and haunted urgency.
The triad of drummer Nik Kaloper, guitarist Sam Lockwood and keyboardist Heather Shannon (there’s no bass player) conjures immense soundscapes, alive with dynamics that shift from dark to light, always with undeniable beauty. Hayley Mary, every bit the smoldering rock enchantress, moves as if the ghost of Chrissy Amphlett momentarily possesses her – coquettish, irresistible, dangerous. She’ll tongue kiss you then rip your still-beating heart from its chest. But with a cheeky grin or dorky dance, the vocalist returns to human form. The relatable rock chick.
But, fuck, what a voice. Hayley’s acrobatics fill the Bar on the Hill – aching, powerful, fragile, a kaleidoscope of colour. She’s a shining light in Australian music. During gems from the Jezabels’ back catalogue, like ‘Mace Spray’, ‘Disco Biscuit Love’, and new jewel ‘Pleasure Drive’, the vocals are rapturous. Effortless.
‘Come Alive’ is the set’s highlight, as it is Synthia’s. Hayley coos: “Gather round all you young, heed my warning”, and you must obey. The brooding maelstrom rises into a scintillating explosion, leaving the listener to hold on for dear life.
After the slinking, sexy, fuzzy pop of ‘Unnatural’, Hayley jokingly asks the crowd’s English students to apply some meaning to its lyrics. Apparently there is no meaning. I was disappointed to learn it wasn’t written from the point of view of a tub of yoghurt in the midst of an existential crisis. With lyrics like “Through the dessert with mother” and “I’m cloaked in milk” and “One day I’ll make a cream to make the day stay this way” and “and out on the field they ran in glee, did circles out on the field, always been a part of me”, there’s surely no other interpretation.
There’s lots of hit singles to fit into one Jezabels show and they arrive thick and fast after a solid 90-minutes of Synthia-heavy setlist. ‘Hurt Me’, ‘Endless Summer’, new stomper ‘If Ya Want Me’ and seven-minute dreamy slow-burner ‘Stamina’ see us through to the encore.
No one’s ready for bed, so the band offers to keep us up a little longer. They reappear and kick off the encore with a return to their Dark Storm EP in ‘A Little Piece’. Then it’s time for aptly titled closer ‘The End’. It’s a big finale. An anthem penned as only The Jezabels can. To answer the question posed in its chorus (“Is this the end? I want to know…”) – no, this is far from the end. The bar has been raised even higher. And that’s a scary thought.