Tales From Life’s Undertow (Mayday Review)

An excellent, insightful review of Mark Seymour’s Mayday album.

Author:  James Rose, Crikey.

Date: 21 May 2015.

Original URL: http://dailyreview.crikey.com.au/mark-seymour-and-tales-from-lifes-undertow


Article Text

Mark Seymour and Tales From Life’s Undertow

Human beings are narrative driven mammals. We all need a story around which to bend our truths and beliefs. The history of music has often served this need. But much of today’s over-produced popular music ignores the power of the parable. Which is why singer-songwriters never really went away and may in fact be experiencing something of a resurgence. Australia has its pantheon of such troubadours, telling our stories to ourselves, and Mark Seymour is one. His new album Mayday is the latest in a long line of story books with a back-beat from the man from Benalla.

He sounded a little bored when we spoke by phone and I imagined him sitting in his agent’s office, hunched over, fist on chin staring out the window and feeling the pain of doing media for the day. Like many life-long performers, he tells me he finds his home on the stage.

“Being on stage is a truthful place to be,” he says.

The dynamic between performer and punters is vital for Seymour and he says that many of his songs simply come from the rich lode of material that comes to him on tour, just by talking to people.

It seems odd as the times I have seen Seymour live, he seems a gruff presence, a little intimidating and severe. Not the kind of bloke you would think to have a heart to heart with at the bar after a gig. But looks can be deceiving and Seymour seems to have found the secret all good artists must find: the art of listening.

Each song on Mayday carries the evidence of that rare ability. Thirteen songs become shards of lives, voiced by Seymour, rolled along by his band, The Undertow.

There’s the young fella stuck at Frankston station without a ticket waiting for the football train, the bloke working FIFO west of Freo, the observer of the passing parade in Courtroom 32, the guy on the road and heading home. All delivered with Seymour’s distinctive gruff, vein-busting grind of a voice laced with lines of tenderness and heart and the firm, pubby backdrop provided by the three-piece band.

It’s also an overtly political album, and the title is a nod to a political space and mindset more engaging with the subjects of the songs it contains.

“I’m not pushing a line,” he suggests, “just trying to throw light on truth.”

“I’m just trying to relate to the point of view of a character I’ve met or imagined. I want the stories to have a feeling of empathy.”

Many of the songs are first person, with Seymour transposing himself into the shoes of his subjects. It gives a sense of intimacy, like the listener and the story teller are alone together in that delicate arc of dialogue between two people.

The empathetic intention comes without judgement on the characters. That is saved for the political system which is, if not attacked front on, is revealed in its weaknesses and gaps.

The downtrodden and the marginals — I heard the term “independents” recently in relation to the late Elliot Smith’s subjects which seems to describe many of Seymour’s people — come to centre stage and tell their tale through Seymour and the band and in doing so they highlight the fact that there’s “One rule for the filthy rich another one for the weak” as he puts it in the opening track, Home Free.

In many ways, it seems, Seymour’s touring life, while a living, is also an personal vocation. Like the old gold miner who keeps going back underground, looking for that elusive glitter, the vein of colour Seymour admits he is willing to play small, out of the way venues simply because there’s maybe a story to be unearthed.

“I talk to people….I get a measure via the impact in the rooms when I play,” he says.

Mayday continues the earthy oeuvre of one of the country’s finest vernacular songwriters and performers. There’s no surprises and no embellishments. It’s simple and honest and the stories ring true, faithfully capturing a moment in time in our nation. The songs grow on you like a landscape, from the back of a flatbed, sun on your skin and the sky vast above you.

Seymour says his career, for all its highs and lows, just keeps unfolding.

“I’m willing to endure.”

The songs on this album might not hit high rotation on commercial FM but they will demand to be heard by those who will take the time, like their creator, to listen. And they too will endure.

Mark Seymour and The Undertow tour Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane from August 1-15.