I had a particularly satisfying conversation in the car yesterday with Sputnik, after wandering up and down a local strip mall buying a new dishwasher, about Don Walker (to be known, forthwith, eponymously, as Don). She asked, quite reasonably, why Don was so grumpy. This is the right question. I responded with the long version: the eulogising of a certain kind of Australian man, eulogising the world that certain kind of man once belonged to, the unavoidable cruelty resulting from the passage of time, and the loneliness that results from wanting to be a man out of time.
By the time I was done we were sitting in the driveway at home and her eyes had rolled back into her head. She was unconvinced that Don added any value to our lives, to anyone’s life. In the end she told me I had to stop now and get out of the car.
With the new Cold Chisel album currently in stores I have a whole slew of (mostly) new songs to think about and enthuse about. Not that all the songs on No Plans are Don’s though, there’s one by Ian Moss and one by Jimmy Barnes, but the other eleven are Don doing his thing. Poor old Sputnik caught me thinking a lot about Don.
Chisel, and Don, are still eulogising and still wondering what might become of that certain kind of man in this ill-fitting world.In a practical sense this is the strength of No Plans: it sounds just like Cold Chisel. There’s the same sense of eulogy, the same frustrated voice speaking from long experience of failure, and the same ill-defined longing. Additionally, the sense of ensemble is inescapable. No Plans is not a star vehicle for anyone: this is a bunch of mates sharing something, making something, loving something (perhaps each other).
The strength of the instrumental voices makes this work: Moss’ guitar rakes across the pauses with his very eighties cascading arpeggios, shaping time and space into something shared. The humble thud of Phil Small’s bass sits behind and below the diligent shuffle of Prestwich’s final drums. All the parts connect and nothing rings out; there are no true solos in Chisel tunes. The backing singers, Don’s keyboard, Jimmy’s whine: all together these manufacture a kind of togetherness, a sense of family.
But still, Don is at the heart of the whole show. He’s the hand on the tiller, and the force of the wind. There are some good Don tunes on the album, most notably “I Gotta Get Back on the Road” which follows his usual lyrical pattern of pointless romanticism followed by a dark abstraction just to make clear how far a romantic resolution is from being present:
There’s a lone jet-trail, west of the moon
Nothing for a thousand miles below
A one-pump roadhouse, late afternoon
My time is over here, I gotta go
It’s a kind of truck driving song (not dissimilar from Little Feat’s “Willin’” or any of Don’s other wistful, longing reflections on the spaces between people, ala “Carless in Isa” or “Get Along”) and a good one, with all the ensemble players filling in the gaps between hope and fulfilment. As with so many Don songs the progress of the song is exactly refuted by the fact that nothing happens at all. There is no action, nothing to see here. Indeed, all there is only hope, only faith. Everything else is distraction, petit-bourgeois vacuities, and pointless.
“Everybody” is almost a great song, it has a rockabilly kick that gives the lyrics a lot of opportunity to be mean and nasty and they are but they’re just not as tight you might hope. There’s some good, bracing stuff: “Everybody longs to feel the pain/That a whole lotta money’s gonna bring” and “Everybody’s locked into too much hock/To ever think about what they don’t want you to know” but for the most part it doesn’t quite work. Oddly, for Don, it’s just not nasty enough. Or perhaps the ‘everybody’ of which Don writes is just too amorphous now and it isn’t so straightforward to tar us all with the same brush. It’s hard to coincide being “idiot free and out of here with you” with the across the board condemnation of shopping as recreation and the gentrification of working class housing estates. They don’t quite go together.
There are some ballads which are OK, if you like that sort of thing. They’re brooding, rather Pogues-like wallowings in the failure of love, or at least the failure of men to make the most it. Women are rather predictably too good for the broken men, or too bad. Not much wiggle room there, and the ballads map out the hopelessness of a position that involves being either undeserved, or undeserving.
There are also the usual rockers of denim, rage, and beer. These are all deftly produced and professionally done. The opening title track, “No Plans” is typical. It rocks out with the shouted rage of an underemployed, bored man waiting for warmth and comfort. If you imagined the sad and sorry life that the narrators of “Khe Sanh” or “Goodbye (Astrid Goodbye)” as they moved toward fifty five or sixty you might well hear the voice at the centre of “No Plans.” A confused, resentful, bored and chronically unimpressed voice assessing the vacant lot of his life:
Don’t ever let’em catch you talkin’ to yourself
Let alone in rhyme
I’m standing in the ruins, looking in the end
Of all mankind, leaning back again
In the sun, smoking a cigarette, no plans
It’s a good song, though not one that makes you want to reach out and make the world a better place. But that’s not what Chisel is for; it’s not what they’re about. When Don goes solo he’s focused on breaking the weight of silences that imprison but with Chisel they’re trying to do something a little different: Chisel are about the faith, the solidarity of the prisoners. They are (every time, on every tune) trying hard to make it possible for us to share that faith.