One thing you can rely on as the years wind by is that if it’s been a decade and a bit since the last Tex, Don and Charlie album, then it must be time for a new one.
And so it is with the sublime You Don’t Know Lonely, a gripping collection of 12 evocative stories in song from the masters of the form: Tex Perkins, Don Walker and Charlie Owen.
After 2005’s All Is Forgiven and the trio’s spectacular 1993 debut Sad But True, itself widely regarded as one of the great Australian albums, You Don’t Know Lonely looks set to reach that same lofty heights.
The gap this time around carries an uneasy poignance, with the death in 2011 of original double bass player Shane Walsh, at just 52, knocking everyone sideways.
“We got slowed down for a bit because when Shane passed away, that took the wind out of us; for a while we couldn’t bring ourselves to replace him,” Tex says. “It was just a matter of time, of water passing under the bridge.”
Tex and Don had already been exchanging material, knowing that the urge to get cracking again was approaching. But it wasn’t only Shane’s untimely departure weighing things down; there was also the fact original drummer Jim White was, as Don puts it, “getting more and more busy with an international career”.
So what to do when the key question of a rhythm section comes up and you’ve got an Australian alt-country supergroup to maintain? Well, for starters you might clock that Cold Chisel drummer Charley Drayton is around – and that he’s got a fine relationship with Charlie Owen stretching back years through Australian rock legends the Divinyls. Add in all-round bass master Steve Hadley, who goes back forever with Tex, and you’ve got a sonic underpinning to an outfit that has roots in its past endeavours, and yet is also undeniably retooled. “When you change a drummer, that fundamentally changes everything in a group, in ways that are not easy to describe in English – but they are enormously evident sitting on stage or in a studio,” Don says.
He points out Garrett Costigan on pedal steel is a crucial part of the mix, too: “He’s always played in my bands and he’s always been an important part of the Tex, Don and Charlie band over three albums.”
For Charlie, the process of making a record with this trio has a consistency, the decade-long break between each one meaning that “we don’t do this like we do other things; when we come around to doing this we have a particular focus on the sound of Tex, Don and Charlie, on the sensation of it”. While he gets a co-songwriting credit on one standout track, One Step Ahead of the Blues, Charlie sees his role as “more about taking care of the sonic aesthetic” and he reckons it’s obvious when a song “fits into the flowing robes of Tex, Don and Charlie”.
And so to the songs – and what a sublime collection it is. It’s bookended by a pair of Don and Tex duets (the muscular What I Am as the opener, the ridiculously beautiful How Good Is Life to close proceedings) with the two of them alternating singing duties on the remaining numbers. There are darkly hilarious moments in here: Tex’s A Man In Conflict With Nature sketches the kind of louche, uninhibited character your grandmother warned you against: the layabout who, after a winning tip at the dogs, celebrates with “three hookers and some sushi”. “I don’t eat ice cream and cough mix for fun,” he growls “Cause ya never know where the day could take ya.”
“It sounds true,” Don says, archly. “Ice cream and cough mix – it’s too much of an unlikely combination for Tex not to have done that one morning. Or else he’s hanging round with the wrong people. “And as for the sushi – does he claim not to have done that?
Tex, for his part, protests that it’s merely that the Japanese staple food rhymed with “taxi” – “or near enough, anyway”. He says he loves a song that comes out almost fully formed. “When you get a sniff of an idea you’ve really got to get as much out of it on the initial moment of inspiration; you can tidy things up later but the bulk of it is done in that first time you get the sparks.”
That’s true but for Don – perhaps Australia’s greatest contemporary songwriter – there’s also value in the long game. He’d been working for 12 years on the low-lit barroom swagger of Plan B, “pages and pages of it, but couldn’t finish it”. The key, in the end, was taking the whole lot to Brooklyn-based songwriter and producer Terry Radigan, who came up with what turned out to be its first two lines: “Bass drum, empty stage/women of a certain age.” “For some reason it was that little click where everything falls into place,” Don says of a piece that, as so often with his material, evokes so much with a bare minimum of words. “I can always see what a song looks like; it’s trying to find a way to describe it that’s the thing,” he says. He sure found it in Plan B, with the real kick saved for the final lines: “She and I/We planned a symphony/Now she’s gone/It’s time for Plan B.” “Hopefully it’s supposed to be quite a strong little movie,” he says, in that understated, eyebrow-cocked way that you might use when observing you’ve just added another entry to the great popular songbook. At least, you might if you were Don Walker.
Speaking of the great songbook, a pair of his offerings here operate as almost a mini-song cycle: Here’s As Good As Anywhere, which gifts its opening line to the album’s title, and The Hitcher, several tracks later, both of them sparking like an arc-welder off his co-written classic 1984 ballad Flame Trees. Both are about moving on, about getting away, about not looking back, about making do; the first of them in particular revisiting the Flame Trees protagonist, a young man returning to the town where he grew up, and yet to a past he can never regain. Only this time it’s an older, wiser, more calibrated view of the world that’s on offer: “You don’t know lonely/Till you’ve looked back down the road/From one more town/Knowing she’s no longer there/And here’s as good as anywhere.” “It’s just a little movie about hitch-hiking into a town, and there’s clearly a regretted girl, which we all have; and in this case, there’s no going back,” Don says. “The voice in Flame Trees is returning home after some success in the big city. That’s not the case in this one.”
A work as strong as You Don’t Know Lonely comes at you clearer and clearer the more time you give it – something that’s as true for its creators as it is for the audience. It grows, rising like the tendrils of a summer vine to envelop you with its layers.