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Tahlia Palmer: Steady Eye

Emlyn Johnson - Contested Mark (2017, EP, self-released)

Andrew Ryan

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"Contested Mark" is cult Australian dark-folk-troubadour Emlyn Johnson's 8th record, and possibly my favourite, although to be fair, I haven't heard the first 5 in full (they're really hard to get your hands on). It follows along similar, meandering paths and themes on display on previous albums; stories about what he sees and people he meets and things he does and how things are, in his reality, in his world. If you are not familiar with his work, but are a fan of early Bill Callahan (smog), are interested in a postmodern take on the Australian Bush Ballad Tradition, and appreciate English language word-play, you should probably give this guy a shot.

The name of the album is from the AFL (Australian Rules Football), where the ball is caught after two or more players all go for it at the same time. The AFL Community Hub tells me that the amount of Contested Marks seen in AFL games have had a sharp decrease since 2012, which I imagine makes the game less visually interesting for those who find joy in watching groups of men jumping together to reach for the same ball. There must have been a lot fewer mid-air crashes in the last 5 years. Emlyn played in the Perth Community Cup recently and I think he won a prize or something. I wonder how many times he engaged with a contested mark. He's probably really good at winning those contests; he's very tall.

So the album is named after this AFL thing because of the drawing he did of a contested mark that was used as the album art. The original drawing is pencil on paper, is framed, and was put up for sale on facebook for $50, but he tells me that only his ex-girlfriend masquerading as David Walsh offered to buy it. She didn't end up buying it. The price has since been raised but I didn't have the guts to ask how much he now wants for it, given that even $50 is too much for me right now. He made sure to tell me it was more than $50. 

There is an ease and confidence on display in his performance on this album that is woven throughout the mostly-melancholic collection of songs, where Johnson is always bluntly honest about his experience in any given situation, doesn't shy away from ugly truths, says what he reckons without sugar-coating anything. When he's not telling those kinds of stories, he is playing with words and sentences and sounds in ways that are something like quasi-structured stream of consciousness, you can't quite tell what he thinks or feels when he does that, though he does lead the listener to intuit/interpret, playing, he's playing with you/me/us, a well-practiced method of lyric creation he's worked with for years. It all serves to give the dedicated listener a lot to chew on. The live performance of this game-play is always a delight, and given enough beers upon hearing a song one has not heard before, it can actually be quite thrilling. I also like it when he shouts lists of things or says the same word over and over again. That is good too.

So there is confidence, and certainly some understated cheekiness, but I have to stress the strong under-current of melancholy, gawd I feel it when listening. This man moves and travels around the south of the Australian continent, noticing the rubbish on the ground, reading the newspaper, reading books, generally ignoring social media, thinking about sex, thinking about love, thinking about money, thinking about politics, thinking about society, thinking about history, thinking about problems. It's a lonely existence, moving place to place, I mean, even with friends in every city and town. I wrote the word loneliness in my notes about the album for almost every song - a particular kind of loneliness that I can't quite put my finger on, not sad-sad, but like, resigned, accepted, maybe even comfortable. Maybe it's the loneliness that comes with not being rooted to one permanent patch of ground. As fellow Perth-borne writer Alex Griffin put it: “A certain kind of maplessness” (Swampland Magazine, Issue 2, 2017).

Maybe the melancholy also exists not just in the lyrics but in the almost lackadaisical delivery of the lyrics, it sounds like he barely gives a shit, but at the same time the cadence shows he does, he invokes satisfying feelings of slight menace (less snarling than previous releases), slight sense of impending doom (Trump Presidency and Australia's ongoing issues with Manus Island and all), a journey, a muted playfulness, not too intense, not too weak, dotted with perfect moments of monotone that make the playfulness all the more evident. Playfulness also exists within that bloody keyboard he used, sped up bossanova beat presets and the like. Sometimes I bop my body along, and sometimes I sway side to side, and sometimes I find myself slumping and staring blankly at the corner of the room, not even noticing the spiders.

It's good music for this turn of the season to hot-hot-hot. I want to tell you what my fave track is but I actually can't choose. That never happens. Emlyn is really good at this thing. He's made a fine record. I hope he puts it on vinyl soon. 

Contested Mark by Emlyn Johnson

Contested Mark by Emlyn Johnson