Methyl Ethel’s new album Triage, released today, is a shimmering, groove-laden reverie. It overcomes the burden of expectation put upon it by the success of the band’s ubiquitous 2017 single Ubu – which placed fourth in the Triple J Hottest 100 that year – to arrive fully formed as an Australian psych-pop masterpiece that only briefly touches the temporal plane in favour of celestial wanderings and psychological spelunking.
“I'm a dreamer, you know,” says Methyl Ethel’s creator, Perth musician Jake Webb. “Joe Strummer [lead vocalist of seminal English punk band the Clash] wouldn't like my music. It's not activating, or it's not a call to arms. It's ponderings – musings on the deep dark void.”
Triage is a cryptic record. Like a strobe light firing, there are brief moments of clarity that are quickly consumed by something stuttering and confusing. Like many musicians Webb’s loath to discuss the subject matter of his songs, preferring to let the listener come to their own conclusions; initially he tries to avoid talking about the songs’ meanings, playing the craftsman with talk of chord progressions and musical theory, before relenting to admit the songs’ emotional underpinnings.
“It's all tied up in people that I know, and real things, and so in that way, to correct myself, it's absolutely an outlet for these things,” says Webb.
“Sometimes things can fuck you up so much, but you know the whole time that it's not even that serious, but goddamn it feels real and shakes you and other people up for a long time,” says Webb about the track All The Elements.
Methyl Ethel is essentially Webb’s solo project. While he tours with a band, he played all of the instruments on Triage himself and recorded the album in his home studio in Perth – only getting help to mix and master it in New York and London. Almost all the songs on the record appear to be about relationships of some sort, but it’s hard to say if the lyrics’ questions are being asked of someone else or Webb himself. Those real-life stories are sometimes punctuated by literary pronouncements and philosophical musings, like one passage on the track Real Tight:
I don’t want to be, left behind / Do you want to be? / I want you now / So I’ve got to shout it / Volition! / Got to do the right thing, tonight
Volition is a foundational concept of existentialism. It describes consciously using one’s own will to come to a decision, or to create simply by willing. During his university days Webb would carry around books by the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. It’s a clichéd image for the ages – the young, earnest creative desperately trying to assert his individuality in a world that demands conformity.
“To be honest, I probably wanted to carry around a JPS book with me to lectures and tutorials to maybe seem a little more cultured,” says Webb, jokingly.
“What I personally get out of his writing, it's like a real, deep introspection. It's a lot of reading of a very mundane existence,” says Webb. “[It’s] the looking inwards ... and I guess the despairing that I find beautiful. People caught up in not even highly complicated situations [that are] just bearing down on them.”
Across Methyl Ethel’s three albums, that earnestness is reinforced by Webb’s yearning upper register, and music videos that play with rote surrealist and dadaist motifs – some of which could easily be considered trite if it weren’t for Webb’s impish sense of humour. Watching the video for Ubu, as Webb and his white-overall-wearing band mates walk around brutalist spiral staircases, you get a smattering of the same weirdness that prompted David Bowie’s flying-eagle mime routine at the last ever Ziggy Stardust concert. But Webb’s happy to poke fun at himself.
“Well we can't be too serious about our own music, really. It's fun. I'm not here in the cold drinking cups of black coffee and sweating about the details the whole time,” says Webb. “I've grown to realise that not many people get these jokes that I'm putting into my songs all the time.”
He’s right that those personal jokes are hard to see through some of the knottier jams on Triage such as Post-Blue and Scream Whole, which are fuelled by discord and unease. The album feels like a constant battle between sincerity and impenetrability. Thick funk bass lines are buried beneath labyrinthine arrangements and Webb’s singing voice frequently abandons enunciation in favour of melody or a coating of reverb. He says American musician Scott Walker – who began his career as an orchestral troubadour only to become a discordant experimentalist – is a major influence.
“Only through learning about him or listening to his music did I think about that crossover between disharmony and the pop song and experimental work. And although a lot of it is a little too cerebral, in the magical moments it's something that I think has burrowed into my brain … to push toward and pull away from something at the same time,” says Webb.
But after being consumed by disorientating darkness, a brief but swelling organ line on the album’s penultimate track What About the 37º? leads you to the exit of Sartre’s psychological Parisian catacombs. Your irises, expanded to their limits by the all-encompassing blackness, are overwhelmed by brightness. On Triage you may feel like you’re trapped in a closed circuit of self-examination, but just around the corner is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s an exultant release.
Sat June 15 – The Astor, Mount Lawley
Fri June 21 – The Forum Theatre, Melbourne
Sat June 22 – Enmore Theatre, Newtown
Thu June 27 – The Gov, Hindmarsh
Friday June 28 – The Triffid, Newstead
Special thanks go to the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne for its help producing this story.