Ask Hayley Mary what the difference is between complexity and accessibility in pop music, and she doesn’t miss a beat. “There isn't one,” says The Jezabels frontwoman, “or at least, there doesn't need to be. To me, pop is the darkest music of all. If you look not at what pop artists are consciously doing but at what they’re reflecting about the world, pop is the most twisted, weird and scary stuff. If you wanted to study the Earth from an alien perspective, listen to pop music.” “When you listen to a slowed-down version of Call Me Maybe,” adds guitarist Sam Lockwood, “yes, it’s incredibly beautiful – but it’s incredibly bleak, too.” “Or The Power of Love by Jennifer Rush,” Hayley continues, with a characteristic chuckle. “That’s seriously heavy. The notion of monogamy in it, ‘I’m your lady and you are my man’, like you own each other: that’s just sick. Lots of people would interpret it as a really light-hearted and cheesy song, but I think it’s heavy. We get so trapped in this narrative of romance that leads to forever, all these unrealistic concepts, and that’s a lot to do with pop songs like that one, I think.”
As the above remarks make clear, The Jezabels are a band who are as absorbed by pop’s surface sheen as they are by its shadow side. From the moment they first emerged in their native Australia with the 2009 EP, The Man is Dead, the four college friends-turned-bandmates have embraced that duality full on. Two further EPs – She’s So Hard and Dark Storm – laid the groundwork for the release in March 2012 of their ARIA award-winning debut album, Prisoner, a record that introduced the rest of the world to Antipodean pop’s most compelling new stars. There followed a 12-month period of intensive touring, which further cemented their status with fans across the globe.
And now we come to album two: The Brink. Coming off the world tour, the band responded not by heading to the beach but by going straight back into the recording studio. Bursting with ideas, and with the inspirational guiding hand of Dan Grech Marguerat (Howling Bells, Keane, The Vaccines) at the controls, they hit the ground running. And, truth be told, they’d still be in the studio now if they’d had their way: when we meet, with the finished artwork just sent to the printers, Hayley and Sam are still arguing about song titles and singles choices.
“It’s hard to let go,” laughs Hayley. “There’s no way we would have got this finished without our manager and his organisational abilities; he’s like our father, he’s really got us under the whip now. We’re four very different and opinionated people, and we definitely need a person who goes, ‘No, this is how it’s going to go’, or we’d agonise over everything until the cows come home.”
“It’s difficult, though,” says Sam, “when you’ve finished something but still feel like there’s something missing; it’s almost like you’re in mourning. Our manager is always having a go at us about the fact that we never celebrate properly. But I don’t think he understands that finishing isn’t necessarily something you can feel happy about.”
The Jezabels are going to have to learn how to celebrate now, for The Brink is the album that is going to send them into the stratosphere. You begin to understand what they mean about the difficulty of choosing singles when, shortly after Look of Love’s chiming guitars, propulsive beat and monster of a chorus have ensnared you, the chattering, pointillist synth of Angels of Fire’s intro, a vocal of extraordinary beauty and a lyric suffused with tenderness and regret, stake an equally persuasive claim on your consciousness – only for No Country’s wash of 1980s-new wave keyboards and euphoric ascent and escalation to arrive and capture your heart.
That last song is the essence of the new album. Sacrificing absolutely nothing in terms of brutal immediacy and immovable hooks, it marries these to lyrics that wrestle with matters both personal and political, and vocals that are quintessential Hayley, gliding between registers, one minute vulnerable, the next defiant. As she explains: “Thinking politics tends to make me sad and confused at the best of times, so I tend to avoid it in songs, but I just got thinking about how many people there were who must think the world doesn't care about them, or that they don't belong, and I imagined the people I love must feel that way sometimes. I just wanted to tell them I love them. It seems like a cheesy sentiment, explaining it now, but at the time it was incredibly genuine.”
Musically, The Brink captures a band hopelessly in love with texture, dynamics and subtlety, moments of restraint giving way without warning to bursts of sonic colour: listen to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, Talk Talk-like gear change out of the title track’s chorus into its second verse; to Heather’s raindrop-like keyboards in the opening bars of Psychotherapy; to Sam’s minimalist guitar on Time to Dance; to Nik’s explosive drumming on Beat to Beat. Over all these, Hayley uses her voice as much as an extra instrument as a conduit for her complex, uncompromising lyrics. Meld all of these with melodies and hooks that establish squatters’ rights in your brain and you have songs like the current single The End – a track that does that devastating Jezabels one-two of lyrics that stare into the dark abyss and music that sets the controls for the heart of the sun – and the album closer All You Need, on which Hayley rips away the protective emotional layering as a string section soars and her bandmates play as if their lives depended on it. “Something missing”? I don’t think Sam need worry on that score.
Now, as they come to terms with the fact that there really is no time left for tinkering and tweaking, that the album is done, dusted and nearing its release date, Hayley and Sam reflect on what they’ve created. It puts them in a nostalgic frame of mind. “When we first started out in Sydney,” recalls Hayley, “there was this quite small indie scene, and it was all quite non-serious, trying to be cool and quite image-based, and our reaction was: ‘Let’s write songs about things.’ Also, three of us came from this small town, so there was definitely a bit of an ‘Oh, look, the city’ vibe; we weren’t city kids, so we weren’t just hanging around being cool. We were seriously uncool, and there are still much cooler bands from that scene now, and that’s just fine. Some people think it’s inconsistent to have opinions and be light-hearted at the same time. We beg to differ. I know you’ve got to have a shtick, and we’re all pretty opinionated, but we’re also fun.”
To which The Jezabels’ manager might well say: “Prove it, then.” Because he’s right: the band have made a sensational new album. So celebrate.