Review Summary: Frame my memory when I'm dead and gone.
Considering such humble beginnings as busking on the streets of Melbourne to make ends meet, to gradually accumulating success via the YouTube Algorithm Overlords™
, to now taking the world by storm with two full length albums and multiple sold-out tours (both domestic and beyond), it’s hard not to respect the hell out of Tash Sultana.
Having also openly admitted to struggling with substance addiction and mental health ailments, the 26-year-old multi-instrumentalist is (regardless of your opinion on the music itself) a shining f**king example of an artist hell bent on finding their footing in the world – regardless of how damn rough the ride might be to get there. And, honestly, when their sheer determination finally paid off with the modest success of 2016 EP Notion
, spearheaded of course through the immense momentum created by Sultana’s most popular single to date, ‘Jungle’? This was all merely the beginning. The more rounds Sultana made, the more buzz began to surround the Melbourne-based multi-instrumentalist, with critics praising the diverse range of influences and stylistic choices within their steadily growing discography; from psychedelic rock, to reggae, to alternative rock, to the reliable old blues and beyond. And, even after the release of Sultana’s excellent debut Flow State
in 2018, there seemed to be no end to Saltana’s continued enthusiasm to keep pushing for more.
Immediately launching into 2019 with collaborative singles ‘Talk It Out’ and ‘Daydreaming’ (featuring Matt Corby and Milky Chance, respectively), alongside the standalone single ‘Can’t Buy Happiness’ and Flow State
Tour, rumours of a follow up record began to surface quickly – which of course eventually culminated in the sophomore effort Terra Firma
, releasing in February earlier this year. However, while fans were certainly excited to jump into another collection of Tash Sultana’s delightfully versatile material, it also can’t be ignored that the pre-release singles leading up to Terra Firma
weren’t exactly a hit with listeners… and this really needs to be tackled first before anything else. With many complaints being directed towards the new material undeniably lacking ferocity compared to the roaring guitar solos of ‘Big Smoke’, ‘Murder to the Mind’ and ‘Salvation’, whilst the emotional core of tracks such as the astoundingly beautiful ‘Pink Moon’ appeared to have also taken something of a backseat, Terra Firma
's promotional singles were for many a disappointing change of pace. And to be fair, it’s initially rather difficult to argue with such protests.
In fact, for quite some time I wholeheartedly agreed with them, too.
Sure, ‘Greed’ certainly still displays the familiarly psychedelic guitar licks, being utterly drenched in watery production that immediately establishes a dreamy mood, while the funk inspired bassline and percussive backbone brings some welcome groove to the track to back up Sultana’s vocal performance – who, by the way, sounds absolutely at home within the music around them. Shifting back and forth from snappy verse lines such as ”think you got a dollar, but you only got a dime – a-hustle up your lovin’ to see the sun shine”
to then the soulful delivery of ”they only give a s**t when you make it big, frame my memory when I’m dead and gone
” during the chorus, Sultana’s vocals throughout ‘Greed’ soar
. And yet, in spite of all the wonderful musicianship on display, the track feels undeniably restrained compared to Sultana’s more intense, searing performances of earlier material. It’s incredibly mellow by contrast and heads in a completely different direction, so to be honest, releasing ‘Greed’ as an early appetiser of the album’s tone was probably one of the best decisions that could have been made – further reinforced by the fact that the album’s debut pre-release single ‘Pretty Lady’ also saw Sultana in an entirely different light.
Indeed, at its heart ‘Pretty Lady’ is a playful take on Sultana’s sexuality, while also being extremely honest about the ups and downs of new relationships. Paired with a more stripped back instrumental foundation of mostly clean guitar licks and relaxed mid-tempo percussion, Sultana lovingly croons each and every word, stating that they might be ”no good at talking”
, while also sheepishly offering nervous admissions of ”I kinda say the same thing twice – maybe thrice, if I’m honest with you”
. Everything about the track is sweetly delivered, very much in the vein of Flow State
’s ‘Mellow Marmalade’, however while ‘Mellow Marmalade’ almost seemed bittersweet, ‘Pretty Lady’ is openly happy
, and absolutely unapologetic about it.
So, to now come to the album itself, upon first listening the most immediately noticeable contrast from Flow State
to the sophomore Terra Firma
is exactly as fans might have feared. The scorching bluesy guitar solos and roaring explosive crescendos in instrumentation? Well, a lot of this has been reined in, and in its place Terra Firma
instead drenches the listener in an absolutely stunning
soundscape. Or at least, at certain points it does. For starters, within the realm of Terra Firma
‘Greed’ and ‘Pretty Lady’ make a lot
more sense, made all the more apparent by the introductory ‘Musk’; a beautifully constructed example of psychedelic rock, from the elegantly textured guitarwork to the rousing trumpets peppered throughout. Similar to ‘Greed’ and ‘Pretty Lady’, ‘Musk’ presents lively, colorful music, suddenly shifting gears in the third act to launch a synthesizer solo into the mix before rounding off the outro with some relaxed finger snaps. Arguably, it’s the perfect track to kick Terra Firma
off, smoothly transitioning into the jazz-infused ‘Crop Circles’ with mellow acoustic guitar and percussion bringing up the rear, Sultana’s vibrant vocals taking centre stage alongside some deftly played piano keys that skip playfully during the mid-section. Again, another extremely enjoyable addition to the album’s roster.
Elsewhere, ‘Coma’ and ‘Dream My Life Away’ both feature as exquisite examples of Sultana’s more acoustically driven material, the former taking clear inspiration from the likes of country music with twangy guitar arpeggios while Sultana blends appropriately desert-fuelled imagery with the previously touched on hallucinogenic addiction; ”it was cold and dark in the middle of the night, the only thoughts for you was substance abuse.”
‘Dream My Life Away’, on the other hand’, is a frankly gorgeous duet. Seeing Sultana share vocal duties with fellow Triple J feature Josh Cashman, the lyrical direction once again takes on a far more introspective tone through lines such as ”here I stand, wondering where I coulda been”
and ”looking back on faded pictures, I wish I’d known that those were temporary fixtures”
while Sultana and Cashman complement each other sweetly. As for the instrumentation, things are kept mostly minimal, a driving clean guitar lick carrying the main hook whilst acoustic guitar serves as the primary backbone of the track until the last minute and a half, at which a slow, steady beat kicks in to offer some additional weight to the final subtle crescendo.
Now, after such positive praise, this is unfortunately where the main bulk of the album’s issues do come in, and it comes with a very blunt statement; the problem with Terra Firma
is not necessarily a result of mediocre material, the problem is a sheer overabundance of undeniable bloat
. At fourteen tracks, Terra Firma
crosses the hour mark by six seconds – however it is with entire seriousness that a full twenty minutes of the album could have likely been cut with little to no complaint. Take ‘Beyond the Pine’, for example, a generally pleasant track by all accounts; the guitarwork shines through the mix wonderfully, the vocals are all delivered competently, and the melodies are nice… but nothing
sticks. As soon as the track is over, you can barely remember a thing about it, and this is an issue that absolutely plagues the rather frontloaded album. Further on, ‘Maybe You’ve Changed’ also offers some interesting ideas regarding a conflict of personality versus the impact of fame through the lamenting ”maybe this has changed me beyond repair”
(with Saltana doing her very best Billie Eilish-esque vocal), but the piano ballad is dreary and barely holds water by the end. And, unfortunately, the mostly pleasant-yet-forgettable tracks just keep on coming.
‘Willow Tree’ is a legitimately upbeat, funk infused late album track, and easily one of catchiest of the record, however it comes sandwiched in between ‘Sweet and Dandy’ and ‘Vanilla Honey’ – two tracks that are by all accounts enjoyable, yet wholly unremarkable. There’s no signature melody or final piece added in order to truly bring them to life, and instead ‘Sweet and Dandy’ and ‘Vanilla Honey’ drift by as if on autopilot. Late game ‘Let the Light In’ and the concluding ‘I Am Free’ also sadly don’t offer much to bring things back on course, however (thankfully) ‘I Am Free’ is still a beautiful track, with the previously mentioned guitar textures and Sultana’s soaring upper register closing Terra Firma
neatly. What really stings, though, is that ‘I Am Free’ would have likely been a far more uplifting closer, were it not hampered by the fact that four to five previous tracks are for the most part nothing more than filler.
So, once again I feel compelled to insist that nothing here is outright bad
. Sultana’s musicianship and technical ability is absolutely apparent, showcased perfectly during the album’s best moments, but the lacklustre material is where Terra Firma
stumbles – and it stumbles hard. What’s even more frustrating is that the superior Flow State
clocked in at almost the exact same length with thirteen tracks at sixty-one minutes; however, where that
album (mostly) seemed to utilise each following track as an opportunity to explore new, exciting ideas, Terra Firma
is borderline stubbornly fixed in its chosen direction. As such, where the album shines, it shines as some of the greatest material of Tash Sultana’s entire career… whereas where it slumps, it slumps with an apparently content attitude in simply producing an idea that has already been overworked, overplayed, and thus to far lesser results. Stripped back to ten tracks, Sultana’s sophomore album could have been a far more focused effort – whereas as it currently stands, Terra Firma
is merely a good album with some fantastic results, alongside other results that almost feel phoned in for the sole purpose of boosting an already bloated runtime.