Jack Ladder & the Dreamlanders: Hijack! review – black humour and drama from acclaimed auteur

On an album born from a ‘series of disasters’, the shapeshifting gloom merchant interrogates his trope with dry wit and lush, orchestral strings

The Australian music industry is unkind to its auteurs. We have little patience for the artist with no hits; who routinely reinvents and rejects their supposed genre; who isn’t really a solo performer but not really a band. Hijack! is the sixth album from Jack Ladder and the Dreamlanders, AKA Sydney songwriter Tim Rogers (no, not the You Am I one) and friends. And in the wake of its release – beyond the accompanying videos, singles, reviews – it will stand purely as a new door into an already spectacular body of work.

Since 2005 the towering, baritone-voiced Ladder has released five albums, spanning spindly folk, jittery-60s blues rock, gothic electro-pop, crooning new-wave and chintzy synth tunes. Each expertly nails a sound and atmosphere, before being discarded wholesale for the next. Terrible moves for building a fanbase in a small market. But those who stick with Ladder’s universe find a cult devoted to the clever arrangements, startling sounds, hidden hooks and uneasy dissonance of an archetypal gloom merchant interrogating his trope with dry wit. And also just five wall-to-wall great records of arch, wonky songs.

None of that fits the paradigm of commercial success in this country (which is also why Ladder regularly tours overseas). But it makes a strong case for him to be considered one of Australia’s most compelling, accomplished and progressive artists. The punchline: Hijack! finds him again dismantling it all. And this time also himself.

Album opener Astronaut struts out with its chest out, its hopeful plinking piano, snare thumps and stirring strings evoking the god’s-eye view of its title. Then immediately the insecurity kicks in: Who am I gonna be when I get free? Who am I gonna be? Me?

Hijack!’s 10 songs were born from “a series of disasters” that befell Ladder in the period since his previous album, 2018’s excellent Blue Poles. It’s easy to see the interpolation of the 2019-2020 bushfires (which were especially cruel to the Blue Mountains where Ladder was living) as well as pandemic-related inertia in his state of being. Soaring torch song I Can’t Drink the Water (which manages to deliriously echo both Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and Bryan Adams’ Heaven) has Ladder singing, I heard they put the fire out / it seems each day there is a new one to put out, while on the tense bluster of Leaving Eden it’s Houses and cars are covered in ash / but I like it here, I don’t live in fear.

There’s also the shadow of a relationship breakdown among the wreckage (It’s really not that bad / I’ve lost everything in everyone I ever had), and the breezy Xmas in Rehab details Rogers’ actual mental breakdown and check-in to a health facility in January 2020 (I’m just sitting here / not drinking beer). And yet … it all makes good grist for the guy who quipped on his last album that birthday cakes were a waste of candles. As the saying goes, comedy is just tragedy plus time.

Hijack!’s sonic palette does a neat job of reflecting this search for clarity. Co-produced with longtime Dreamlander bandmate Laurence Pike (PVT, Liars, Luke Abbott), it ditches the arch grooves and electro-noir of the band’s best work for an airier, down-tempo feel. With exception to The Giver, which blasts ace guitarist Kirin J Callinan’s signature metallic squalls over grinding bass, the Dreamlanders retreat behind a soft-synth and piano scrim. This allows the swooning orchestral strings of Australian-US composer Sam Lipman to drop from the rafters and lend a Disney-ish, fantastic feel to the record, swinging between treacly drama and hints of violent ecstasy. It can border on maudlin, but when it finds its sweet spot, as on Astronaut, I Can’t Drink the Water, and mid-album highlight Egomania – which has Ladder’s voice quavering In my mind / I’m always right, over spiralling baroque strings and harpsichord plinks that finally blossom into a grand, curdled romantic payoff – the effect is unlike anything else in the catalogue.

The strings, soul-searching and absence of Dreamlanders’ hip-swinging does make for slow going at times. Leaving Eden never quite takes off, while the earnest ode to Rogers’ young daughter in Blueberry Eyes, and the fried dirge of American Smile, has the back half starting to drag. But even then his trusty compote of bon mots, one-liners and brute earnestness deliver.

Thanks for coming out to see me / you’ll never know how much it means to me, sings Ladder on American Smile. Don’t forget to buy a shirt / when you don’t buy merch, it hurts. He could be receiving visitors bedside, somewhere on stage or maybe just in his head. Even when mired in lush tragedy Hijack! finds time for comedy. And that’s a light worth hanging on to.


Contributor

Marcus Teague

The GuardianTramp

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