Though Joe McKee’s debut arrives not long after the demise of his former group – the multicultural musical mavericks Snowman and their posthumous masterpiece Δbsence – the woozy sonic landscapes of Burning Boy make him sound like a vagabond that’s arrived from years wandering on a dusty trail of internal discovery.
In fact, that may not be far from the truth. The seeds of McKee’s solo material first sprouting even as his group were shuffling into oblivion, then solidified after relocating back to Perth after several years in London. Burning Boy provides the creative catharsis and assured sonic evolution of McKee’s musical interests that also grasps a rare, lucid ability to capture and articulate the intangible.
Opening with the line “Am I losing touch with reality?/Or am I waking up/From some lucid dream?” (on the cunningly titled “Lunar Sea”), McKee’s evocative record dives head-first into surreal depths, and spends nearly 45 minutes swimming gracefully through it – without ever needing to come up for air.
His aching croon is pushed into the spotlight against a musical backdrop that’s graceful, but dangerous. Its dreamy, cinematic fug perfectly soundtracks his strange, mottled subject matter. A hazy mix dealing with memory, uncertainty, and identity. Most pointedly in the title track, which finds McKee lullabying a younger version of himself over a sweltering wave of orchestral swells and teasing murmurs (“I lose you in the mirror/like a ghost”).
As much as reference points can describe such a record; at times it’s the sonic equivalent of David Lynch’s darker surrealism, but with the expressive, uniquely Australian storytelling that was the finest quality of Gareth Liddiard’s Strange Tourist. Particularly in how McKee’s native Perth crops up in “An Open Mine” as well as the liquid melodies of “Darling Hills.” Its fragile guitar and lush string washes burrowing and settling in your memory banks like the nostalgia it evokes.
Rife with brilliant moments and rich subtleties – “An Open Mine” bursting temporarily into a Sufjan Stevens-worthy chant, the guttural rhythmic punches of “A Double Life”, to name but two – Burning Boy is a record made for the mature of ear.
The legacy of McKee’s musical heritage contributes to a cohesive set that rewards with each new listen that draws you deeper into its entrancing world. One that between its tangled web of haunting moods, nocturnal articulations and conflicting whispers shouts loud and clear, “Ladies and Genetleman, you are now listening to one of the albums of the year.”
- Al Newstead
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