A heavily effected intake of breath, a subdued whistle of feedback like some distant solar flare, and we’re off: gliding down Dolorean Highway. The drums are sparse, grand. The organ hangs like neon gossamer in the vacuum of space. The echoing vocals propel your streamlined vehicle smoothly down the pristine rainbow road. This is not a high speed chase or a rollicking road trip: this is the luxury driving experience. This is the high life.
It must have been a bizarre – if not always conscious – transition for the members of POND and Tame Impala: navigating the dubious shift from rock-star pastiche to actual rock stardom. Even back in the days of Mink Mussel Creek (featuring Pond’s Nick Allbrook, Joe Ryan), The Dee Dee Dums (prototypical Tame Impala) and The Novocaines (of which our man GUM was a formative member), these young gentlemen were embracing the sounds and signifiers of bands whose natural habitat was the stadium and/or the cover of Mojo Magazine. But the tongue-in-cheek absurdity of local, jocular youngsters channelling interstellar classic rock begins to dissolve when those same youngsters get a little older and actually play Glastonbury to crowds of screaming thousands. Where to go from there, then? Options include: the “knee-jerk” (doff your stylistic influences, record a noise album in a public toilet), the “straight face” (carry on as before but without the fun and self-awareness, see: Wolfmother) and “down the rabbit hole” (marvel amusedly at your teenage fantasies becoming manifest whilst feverishly pursuing the ultimately earnest goal of rock-and-roll songwriting perfection).
If anyone’s opted for the latter it’s Jay “Gumby” Watson, aka Gum. Ever the cheekster, the irreverent and unprofessional presence amid whatever TV appearance or interview, he is nonetheless dead serious about making great rock music in 2014. This has long been evident in his input into Pond and (to a lesser extent) Tame Impala, of course, but his fervour is isolated, distilled and mixed into a late-night Martini on this, his solo debut. Gumby clearly worships at the altar of Prince, Michael Jackson, Bowie, The Beatles, The Flaming Lips, The Beach Boys and other such gods of blockbuster-art-rock goodtimery. His efforts in that lineage are not only sincere: they’re really, really, good.
Following the brutally suave Back-to-the-future dreamscape of the title track, “Growin’ Up” drops in like dawn-time reality check. Gum’s voice rings out over melancholic string picking: “I understand what it takes to be a man / but I don’t have the time of day to be brave,” a self-conscious cop-out lyric that arguably sets the true tone of the entire album. The grandiosity of the lush, retrofuturistic arrangements is underscored by a recurring theme of self-doubt; Gum wails on the electric guitar, pop culture’s great modern phallus, and simultaneously emasculates himself. What could be hollow pomposity transforms into pathos.
“The Sky Opened Up” is next. It starts out reminiscent of early Yes; vocal harmonies flourishing like the carefully layered chorales of Jon Anderson – but where Yes might have noodled themselves into a majestic knot, Gum opts for fun – introducing a soul-inspired rhythm section before the whole thing tumbles into Brian Jonestown Massacre-esque garage hurtle. Next comes “Misunderstanding,” which is what it’d sound like if late-era Lennon/McCartney invented the electric toothbrush.
“Summer Rain” is one of the record’s less attention-grabbing moments, which is more of a testament to the surrounding tracks’ interest than an indictment on this one. It’s simple, no-surprises psych pop – but it eschews drums, and is wholly pretty and brief, which means it’s a welcome deviation. It’s like stepping out of the club for a minute and feeling the crisp night air cool your skin, drying your sweat.
But break-time doesn’t last long. “21st Century Radiation” is fast-paced, lo-fi party boogie: Marc Bolan driving over the speed limit. Candy-pop handclaps take us over the threshold of restrained cool and into the world of cheesy twistfloor indulgence, which is totally a worthwhile trade-off. And the guitar solo is the best approximation of that fucked-up early Kinks lead sound I’ve heard to date.
“Pink Skies” starts with a Barrettesque, melancholic jazz-folk refrain but soon dives into stratospheric riffing. Then – jangly, slackjawed momentum that makes me want to mention R.E.M. “Day of The Triffids” bases its entire existence on the novelty factor of a tune being played backwards, and feels delightfully wide-eyed as a result. “Living and Dying” plays out like a mellifluous inventory of the whole record so far: stellar harmonies, motown grooves, guitar density, playful effects, existential themes.
The record’s denouement is – in quintessential fashion – a psychedelic acoustic rumination, here called “Can’t See Past My Eyes.” With its bluesy tonality and harmonica lead breaks, it nods to the southern rock and rootsy folk influences that have hitherto been conspicuously absent from Gum’s postmodern survey of classic rock tropes. It’s not one of the album’s best songs, but it’s a fitting mood to wind down with; importantly, it’s a far cry from the record’s ice-cool, aloof opener, and the high production values of the album’s first act. “Delorean Highway’s” trajectory has taken us from sleek racecar to rickety verandah, yet it doesn’t feel like an unhappy ending – it’s just not a fairy tale.
If the lyrics on Gum’s debut LP deal with self-doubt, vulnerability, fear and fun, then musically these compositions are a perfect counterpoint – constantly constructing and deconstructing the rock and roll archetypes, investing faith in the dream before winking and emptying it out again. The result is an eclectic, swirling, undulating record which – unlike, say, Dark Side of The Moon – doesn’t profess to tackle life’s big questions head on. But it’s a record that understands that rock and roll is the answer to at least a few of the soul’s more perennial yearnings.