The world abounds in symbols and ciphers; the Australian continent warms, its own unique portents, omens and code.
In the plumage of the black cockatoo, pictograms scrawled into the sand by the nails and scales of earthbound lizards, the glassy eye of the carrion crow glaring.
William Crighton identifies powerful analogues of lived experience. It’s a gift that finds its truest expression yet on his landmark second album, Empire.
“This album is a result of doing what I’ve always loved to do and will always do – write songs about my experiences and relationships in the environment around me.” Crighton says, describing Empire.
“My last album was the first time I was able to really look back and examine myself and my life in context. I guess I’ll get more of a picture of what this album is to me the closer I get to the next one, it felt right to make”
Produced by established producer and collaborator Matt Sherrod and recorded in a series of evocative settings, Empire expands Crighton‘s powerful sound into sprawling new planes and finds the singer-songwriter bringing a cinematographer’s eye for detail to bear on his unique and immersive lyrical style.
“We’re all conditioned one way or another and for me, at least 50% of the time, it feels impossible to know where that begins and ends. Songs feel like freedom”
It’s a world of peril and of sudden beauty, in which one man prepares for doomsday while another isolates profound truths in the song of an insect.
Against this backdrop, Empire’s shifting perspectives and contrasting viewpoints coalesce to form a richly detailed mandala of an experience.
Since the release of his debut, has attracted the attention of many taste-making publications including Rolling Stone Australia. In January 2017, the first of Crighton’s much-lauded performances at the Tamworth Regional Gallery was ranked by late, great rock critic Iain Shedden among his “all-time Top 10” live shows.
Also in 2017, Crighton released 7-inch vinyl ‘Hope Recovery’, accompanied Dan Sultan and CW Stoneking on their respective national tours, and performed to thronging crowds at WOMADelaide and Woodford Folk Festival. He showcased at Canadian Music Week, New York City’s Mondo Music Conference and the Folk Alliance International in Kansas City.
Building a reputation as a world-class live performer, Crighton recently completed his debut Canadian tour, alongside Terra Lightfoot and will travel to the UK and Scandinavia midyear to play a selection of prominent music festivals before returning to Canada in September.
Of his inspiration in composing the songs of Empire, Crighton says the driving force was “just being here. My 9-year-old daughter says, ‘hope is the one thing that brings us together’, I agree with her and think it could go either way. There’s more and more people realizing what’s going on and changing things for the better but on the other hand there’s a lot of greed and crazy out there holding on tight”
A few years ago, I asked a good mate, a Wiradjuri bloke, if he thought a “great awakening” was coming and he said, ‘they’re white fella words, we’ve been living sustainably for 100’s of thousands of years’ – That put me in my place and inspired me beyond measure.”
Empire sees William Crighton expand his study of the human psyche. Hard close-ups meet a roving widescreen lense. The world he weaves bristles, heaves and crawls with life: birds and beasts, men and monsters; cities and seas; all imbued with profound significance, both personal and epochal.
Joining Crighton in the studio were “a tight group of friends and family”, including Sherrod on drums and synth, wife Julieanne on vocals, and Crighton’s own brother Luke on bass.
Frayed chords and distorted squalls of psych-and-desert-rock guitar muscle conjure ‘Devil’s Tongue’.
Beyond the scorching, often frenzied dynamism of the album’s towering rock moments, the deft deployment of synthetic and treated sounds-as on the loping ‘Let Love Come First’
Inspired by a dream Crighton had on the banks of the Bogan river opener ‘Fire in the Empire’ draws us into darkening gulfs of time and bloody history. Cathedral bells, spectral wails, and the percussive, mounting urgency of the track’s driving guitar rhythms cement its pervading sense of disquiet.
Elsewhere, ‘Happiness’ charts blissed-out new vistas shivering with feeling, while ‘Mr Brown’ draws on touchstones including the Beatles at their most engrossing, giving way to the low brass and woodwind of the bittersweet ‘Sadness’.
The excoriating sheets of guitar noise that power belting rock moment ‘999’ recall flavours of Midnight Oil’s ‘Redneck Wonderland’, counter pointing a heart worn dedication to his wife in ‘Julieanne’.
‘Rejoice’ couples carnivalesque theatricality to the sloping stomp of 80s post-punk, while penultimate track ‘Someone’ features an impassioned performance from guest vocalist Gawurra, who delivers, in language, a song line of his Milingimbi homeland. “It’s hard to be in the presence of Gawurra and not be inspired in some way,” Crighton relates.
Closing with a desolate take on Eric Bogle classic ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’, Crighton signals his undying commitment to interrogating the myths that make us as a people.
Above all, Empire is a songbook of breathtaking insight. The flame of the human spirit is, in Crighton’s hands, shown to be the most powerful force at work in 21st Century Australia: one that produces both soot and shadow, but also guiding light, illuminating both the painful past and the difficult path forward. Let hope chime.
Empire is out on ABC Music on 4th May 2018