What is it about a soft, high-pitched voice against a hard rock back drop? Think Led Zepp and Plant or Acka Dacka and Scott/Johnson. It’s ethereal yet grounded, heavenly yet earthy, like an angel come in from playing footy. Powderfinger with Bernard Fanning’s seraphic voice reached, if not similar heights in global terms, then certainly some of the more stratospheric moments in Oz Rock’s long line of glory.
Their fourth studio album Odyssey Number Five was perhaps their greatest effort, marking a steady rise to chart success with a truly memorable collection of intelligent, head-bouncing tracks. Released in September 15 years ago, Odyssey put the band firmly on the path to be one of this country’s greatest rock bands and changed that rusty old pub rock model.
In some ways, Powderfinger is an unlikely success story. Private school boys from poncy Brisbane Grammar and uni students at the elitist University of Queensland may not seem the perfect training ground for pub rock cred. That crucible of sweat and tears, of grit and grime, the home of scream-out-loud anger and rage seems anathema to the those destined to be treading the halls of power and privilege.
But, like Jagger and his upper middle class foundations, Powderfinger were able to nimbly flip the paradigm and to revel in the undersides of the society they were perhaps fated to rise above. But, they had to work at it. Their first studio album, Parables for Wooden Ears (1994) is, despite some good moments, a pretentious wank of a thing, the sort of sound you might expect from private school tossers playing at being rock stars. Few bought the ruse.
By Double Allergic (1996) and certainly by Internationalist (1998), the band had cast off all the froth and nonsense of their earlier phase and had reached into the very heart of the nation, and into themselves. With these outputs, Powderfinger found its true grooves and learned the vernacular — both verbal and musical. Their politics also became more pointed.
The mix was a winner and by Odyssey, the band had a vast army of eager fans awaiting its release. They weren’t disappointed.
Perhaps because they’re Queenslanders, the sun is a recurring motif for Powderfinger (Lemon Sunrise from Internationalist and Sunsets from Vulture Street) and Odyssey starts off with an obligatory homage to the state’s best asset. Waiting for the Sun powers up from a sparse guitar clangy intro and drives into what was by now becoming the iconic ‘Finger sound: the gentle, almost whiney vocal rises of Fanning set against the grungy landscapes of Middleton (guitar), Haug (lead guitar), Collins (bass) and Coghill (drums).
My Happiness, the album’s second track was released as a single pre-Odyssey and remains the band’s highest charting track. It hit #4 on the ARIA singles charts in August, 2000, won numerous awards, and made some limited headway elsewhere, including the US where it was performed live on Letterman. My Happiness is an interesting bridge from their earlier work in that it is unashamedly a pop song and has a more polished and less fraught production than much of which came before. It was like the grunge was caking off and a cleaner, more sophisticated band was emerging.
In The Metre, the ‘Finger boys seem to taking aim at the hollow victories of power, and the impacts on the individual. And it offers a few more sun-drenched thematics: “There’s a sunset on the road.” It’s a song shaped around an acoustic riff and is again, apparently, openly aimed at the pop charts with its orchestral waves and radio friendly tonality. It was released as a double A side with Waiting for the Sun.
There’s politics too in Like a Dog, arguably the band’s most polemic track. Lining up then PM John Howard and his aim to keep us all “relaxed and comfortable,” the band don’t hold back: “The higher the stakes, the lower the blows”. Reconciliation, at a time when the government resolutely denied an apology to indigenous Australians, is singled out: “Now we’re trying hard to reconcile a history of shame/ But he reinforced the barriers that keep it the same.” Fanning’s usually soft voice rasps, “I’m not relaxed or comfortable / I’m aggravation and shame”.
The arrows continue with the Odyssey #5 interlude, which is jammed in as one of those nice pieces that couldn’t find a home.
By Up and Down and Back Again, a deeper polemical sub-strata is emerging. The lyric tracks a seemingly tense relationship between two people. One, the song’s ‘I’, seems troubled and the other, ‘You’ appears to have the wherewithal to assist the former. But the former seems wary of the help, and perhaps at what motivates it: “In all the hidden pleasures you find / In what you’re looking for / I hope that you remember that pride / Comes before a fall”.
That reading may well be off, of course. But, the theme of judgement is an important angle in many of Powderfinger’s lyrics. The politics of personal relationships seems to be something of a spiky area for Fanning and co., and virtually every song on Odyssey contains multiple uses of the words “I”, “You” and “We.”
Through the remaining tracks, Up and Down and Back Again, My Kind of Scene, These Days, and We Should be Together Now, “I” is a constant thread running through the lyric, propping up the vocals like Roman pillars.
The band had attempted with Odyssey to make a more coherent collection and it seems the glue was The Self, embodied in Fanning’s navel gazing. Fanning admitted his lyrics on Odyssey were his “most personal and direct yet”.
As such, the mood is more of an out-pouring of emotions and stories for a first person perspective. This perhaps differentiates the ‘Finger, on this album at least, from a band they’ve been compared with (and accused of imitating), Pearl Jam, who tend, through Eddie Vedder’s wandering minstrel style, to tell narratives as an observer, rather than always as the participant.
Lyrical details notwithstanding, Fanning’s emotive, nasal wail prevails and each track on Odyssey is a killer. The thump and energy of the musical universe, the sheen and clarity of the melody, are hardly bettered by any band before or since. For critics though, the I’ism in the band’s work is suggestive of, perhaps, a bloated sense of self, a lingering whiff of earlier pretensions. For fans it’s just honesty.
Odyssey was named as the best Australian album of all time in Triple J’s Hot 100 albums list in 2011 and hit #1 on the local album charts on release. It also hit 35 on Billboard’s “Heatseekers” album chart. It remains probably the favourite of the majority of ‘Finger fans.
Australia has a fine line in pub rock and pop rock, and Powderfinger were able to develop the genre and take it into more refined, highbrow spaces. The band’s fans might be considered among that style’s better educated and cultured, and may well be responsible for shifting the demographics of pub/alt rock out of the fibro ‘burbs and into the swish, inner-city condos.
Whether that’s a good thing or not is worthy of debate perhaps. But, the defining moment in Australian rock music history that is Odyssey #5 is undisputed. Without a dud track and without a bung note, it stands the test of time and will likely remain a favourite for as long as that Powderfinger sun keeps shining.