In Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the musical which crossed paths on Broadway with Tim Minchin’s musicals Matilda and Groundhog Day, the central character is driven by a loudly tolling inner bell. Time is always in a hurry, and it must be controlled long enough for him to achieve everything he needs to. Time demands and demands, and time wins, early too, with Hamilton dead before 50. But a mark has been left.
In Minchin’s Apart Together, his first album of non-theatre/comedy show songs, time is the drumbeat as well. But here it’s not a future that’s looming; instead, what drags like dead weight for some of his characters is time spent already, with things never done or not done enough; or time silently judging others for living a merely adequate life.
“Time wraps her arms around me like one of those time-lapse photographic sequences of autumn,” Minchin sings in Summer Romance. “Sending in her debt collectors to wreak havoc on the trees of Highgate Woods.”
Summer Romance opens the album wondering if a love has been made temporary, or was born that way. Carry You ends the album accepting that love has ended – but wanting to believe its imprint will be indelible. At the core of the nine-song territory between them is time: passing, wasted, or pressing.
In Absence Of You, a man wanders past the love-eternal locks on the Pont Neuf in Paris, then finds himself overlooking Central Park with a woman in his room. Life seems ideal, but he’s reminded of the one who isn’t there, rendering these experiences – this time – pointless. In I Can’t Save You (“from yourself”), money, aid and the best intentions disappear into an empty space that won’t ever be filled; and in I’ll Take Lonely Tonight, the narrator – in his hotel – refuses to give in to a temptation he knows he would later regret. (“I will spend $25 on mini bar snacks and pass out on my own/And wake in four hours or so, soaked in relief, to find I am alone”).
The most telling moments on Apart Together are directly personal, related to the self-questioning of a middle-aged man at multiple crossroads, who is pondering how he’ll be remembered (as he does in detail in If This Plane Goes Down). Minchin is in peak mid-life crisis years, and if anything might ignite such a crisis it would be watching a show you’ve spent years working on be crushed by the brutal film industry, or a musical you launched on the back of a major success falling short critically and financially.
Minchin isn’t pretending to have come out the other side sanguine. Hell no: Were those his best years pissed up against a corporate façade? Has his time passed?
He takes the opportunity to unload with a few instances of humour too, such as on the glossily buoyant Airport Piano, with its barbs at bankers and wankers and Porsche SUV drivers; and, especially, on the formally grand Leaving LA, its lines heavily dotted with unashamedly bitter diatribes.
The barbs, and his mixed experiences with the film industry, are a good link to a crucial element in the Minchin arsenal: Randy Newman. The American’s natural swing and unerring ear for a piano ballad, and his easy combination of pre-rock and pure-70s styles – just as much as his humour and character-based provocations – have long been prime inspiration for Minchin.
The great man’s influence is strong in Beautiful Head’s light raunch with sharp guitars; in the simple elegance of If This Plane Goes Down; in Talked Too Much, Stayed Too Long’s jazz/soul blend, and The Absence Of You’s quiet hymnal. There’s an almost classicist formality underpinning Minchin’s songwriting that can be traced directly to Newman, too.
Though for Australian listeners, it’s impossible to hear Minchin’s nasally and sardonic tone, the surprising vulnerability and tenderness of his songwriting and the scope of the arrangements and not be reminded of another Newman devotee: Tim Freedman of the Whitlams.
The Absence Of You sonically and lyrically feels like a very close (albeit less cynical) cousin to the Whitlams’ Fondness Makes The Heart Grow Absent; and among the many other examples of shared ground are the vamping climax of Airport Piano and the title track’s glistening sheets of guitars. Apart Together’s producer, Daniel Denholm, has a couple of Whitlams records on his resume, and the long-time Whitlams guitarist Jak Housden plays all the guitar on this album too.
One thing either Tim could tell you is that for all “sons of Randy”, their biggest test may not be melody, structure or rhyme but convincing listeners to see past wit and bite to the emotion and attractiveness of their songs. Minchin – leaning on ballads, toning down the acid – goes a long way to doing that.
• Apart Together by Tim Minchin is out on 20 November through BMG. Minchin’s performance of the album will be streamed live at 7pm on 19 November around the world, with tickets available online