Summerland is the fourth studio album by Australian Hip Hop group The Herd, released on May 24, 2008 (this writeup is long overdue). The liner notes say that the title is taken from the name of a house or property where the album was 'conceived', but I think that it is their name for Australia itself. The Elefant Traks website's description of the album says that Summerland is "a mythical place where the term ‘relaxed and comfortable’ thinly veils something sinister, something complex – in which a bright joyous celebration is tempered with a threat." Pretentious much?
So The Herd has been known for being a great experimental band, and this album is another eclectic mix of sounds from around the world, refracted through a Hip Hop lens and played with gusto, but something is missing. Listening to their first album again, it is clear that they were just a bunch of guys who loved messing around with instruments and making interesting beats. Still, this had the downside of making the album a bit inconsistent and it all didn't quite fit together. Then, with An Elefant Never Forgets and the addition of Jane Tyrrell, they had matured and seemed to have a greater sense of purpose; the album worked much better a whole, rather than a collection of bits and pieces. They still had a flair for musical surprises and weren't out to make hits. The Sun Never Sets was aiming high, but it hit the mark and was a work of brilliance. Still, one couldn't shake the feeling that they were just ticking the boxes on their checklist of subject matter; anti-globalisation song, check, broken homes ballad, check, soldier's anthem, check, alcoholic's diary, check, a bit of boasting, check. They were trying a lot harder than before, so the album lacked that effortless quality. All this time their songs were becoming more and more structured, and their lyrics more and more focused, so to me it felt like quite a formal album.
Next, there's Summerland.
- Freedom Samba
- The King is Dead
- Time to Face the Truth
- Kids Learn Quick
- A Few Things
- My Home
- Zug Zug
- Black & Blue
- When You Escape (Music v. Fashion)
- The Next Movement
The album débuted at #7 on the ARIA Album charts and reached #2 on the Top 40 Urban Album charts. It won the 2008 'Best Independent Urban/Hip Hop Album' from the Australian Independent Record Labels Association Awards. The King is Dead, their celebratory anthem to the end of John Howard's rule as Prime Minister, was the first single. 2020 was the second. The 2020 music video was directed by Mike Daly; it was made to look like a newspaper being written, and the band members appeared within the stories, at times hanging from a precipitous y or dancing atop a huge T. The video won the inaugural J Award for 'Best Music Video' in 2008.
All of these songs have such a pressing agenda, you can see it right in the track titles. The only one that doesn't seem to have one is Zug Zug, a beach rock-esque chronicling of touring adventures they've had, following on from their previous song, Mischief. It's really the one bit of fun in the whole album. Their older songs talked about city life and experiences that we all know, but they're not interested in such lowly matters any more. Every song is an essay a manifesto or an indictment, it's a didactic album that feels rather like a lecture. With the sole exception of Zug Zug, they've stopped making fun songs altogether, and it doesn't feel like they're having any more fun with making the music than we are with listening to it. Like most bands eventually do, they've started taking themselves too seriously.
Another issue I have with this album is that it is close to being over-produced. The dirty, energetic sense of spontaneity is gone, and everything is polished until it sounds somewhat bland. Not all of the songs are like this, but most notably My Home, The King is Dead, 2020 and Emergency are somewhat generic, and generic is definitely not how I would have described The Herd before this album. It lacks that great spark of creativity and energy that came through in all of their older songs.
They still have a great talent for complex and skilful lyrics, no doubt about it. A Few Things creates a very powerful atmosphere of nostalgia and disenchantment, Kids Learn Quick feels brutal and strong without a wall of sound, and Pearl is thought-provoking about the past and what is to come. All of the musical atmosphere and intelligent, unexpected rhymes are still there, but it really pushes the limits of the musical fourth wall at times. Where they used to send the listener a message without forcing it, they'll now push it straight in your face. They were once a light-stepping collection of musicians who could joke around without being vacuous or shallow, and now they're Rage Against the Machine with an accordionist.
I don't know if or when they're planning to make their next album, but I'll buy it anyway, I still have faith in them.