You can tell a lot about a person’s artistic quality by the way in which they respond to a personal crisis or any period of radical change with their chosen medium. Do they descend into self-indulgence and wallow in their own misery by creating stuff that excludes their audience through focusing on their own problems? Or are they able to find the language that allows them to use their own experiences as the basis for creating material which speaks to more than just themselves? The break-up album, the album a pop singer writes when his or her relationship goes south, has become almost a cliche by now as everybody from heavy metal rockers to country singers have written “she/he done me wrong” songs.
Thankfully there are performers who are able to transcend the cliche and write songs expressing more than the typical sentimental garbage about crying in the dark while drinking their way through acres of beer. Change of any sort is difficult to deal with, and when it involves the sudden dissolution of a long- term relationship the impact is even more profound. Yet change is the key to artistic growth, and it’s only through embracing it that an artist is able to prevent their work from stagnating. It doesn’t matter what the change is, it’s what the artist does with it. So when you listen to Xavier Rudd’s most recent release, Koonyum Sun, you can’t help but be impressed by his success in creating material which not only reflects changes in his personal life, but which is significantly different from anything he has released previously.
During an interview I conducted with him in July of 2009 he was already talking with excitement about heading into the studio the following fall with his new bandmates, Izintaba — bass player Uncle Tio Moloantoa and drummer/percussionist Andile Nqubezelo. For the guy who started out as basically a one-man band playing behind a bank of three yirdaki (didgeridoos), a slide guitar cradled on his lap, keeping beat with drums controlled by his feet and hiring musicians as needed for studio work and touring, working with even this modest sized band represented a significant change in how he’d have to approach his music. So while I anticipated Koonyum Sun would have sizeable musical differences from his earlier recordings, having no idea that his decade long marriage had ended as well, I wasn’t prepared for the sudden maturity in his song writing.
While Rudd has always had the ability to communicate with his audience on a level that few of his contemporaries can match, there’s an immediacy and intimacy to the material on this disc that makes it the most compelling work he’s ever done. While there are songs that obviously refer to his marriage breaking up — “Love Comes & Goes” and “Set Me Free” — they don’t diminish the overall sensation of hope generated by the material on the disc. For while they don’t deny the pain that he felt over what happened, they do so in a manner that recognizes while one part of his life has come to an end there is still plenty to look forward to. Even better, instead of wallowing in self-pity and inflicting the listener with his tales of woe, he has created lyrics which capture the experience so we can all understand it, even if we’ve never personally lived through something similar.
The roads we take in life often seem to be very strong
We walk them carefully like we’re walking on bricks and stone
Only when we look behind you will see the road is cracked
From there we must move forward
Gently as we tread…
There’s no other pain like losing a soul mate. — Xavier Rudd, “Love Comes & Goes” (Koonyum Sun, 2009)
As Rudd has proved in the past he cares deeply about the world around him and has no hesitation in singing about those things. However instead of preaching about what he thinks is wrong with the world or what we should be doing to make things better, he gives us the opportunity to experience the world as he does through his lyrics. So we share his wonder and joy at the grandeur of nature or his sadness at how we are in the process of letting it all slip away through carelessness and neglect. “Shy To Ground,” the disc’s opening song, is a great example of this as he offers a series of contrasting glimpses of the world around us. “I’ve seen all of the fear and all the murder on TV and I’ve been free on solid waves, Mother Earth’s greatest treat.”
Musically, even in the days when he was a solo act, Rudd has always drawn upon a variety of styles and traditions including reggae, Afro-pop, Native American, and the aboriginal music of his native Australia. In his earlier material the reggae influence gave his songs a somewhat lighthearted feel, as if in spite of any problems there might be in the world, we’d always be able to kick back and enjoy ourselves. While over the years he may have broadened his perspective so that his music has gained in intensity, he’s still held onto the same joie de vivre that made him so appealing in the first place. On Koonyum Sun the music reaches new levels of intensity and complexity.
In part that’s thanks to his new partnership with Itzentaba whose contributions on bass, percussion, and vocal harmonies have added new layers of texture to his sound. There’s a depth and intensity which didn’t exist on previous albums, giving the music on this disc an urgency making the material even more compelling then previous works. Working with Moloantoa and Nqubezelo has also encouraged Rudd to experiment more with rhythm and tone. Building from their common background in reggae the three men have created new ways of using a familiar style so it sounds fresh again.
It’s not often that you find a pop musician as willing to embrace change, no matter what shape it comes in and the difficulties entailed, as Xavier Rudd. At the same time, he has managed to hold onto the elements of his style which made him such an appealing performer in the first place. Koonyum Sun is perhaps his most musically and lyrically mature release to date and is easily one of the best new releases this year. If you’ve liked Xavier Rudd in the past, you’ll not be disappointed, and if you’ve never heard him before, well, there’s no time like the present for starting to listen to one of this generation’s most articulate and passionate voices.