3.5 stars (out of 5)
review by Mitchell Peters - Time Off, 26 June 1996
Since the early eighties, with the demise of his pub rock outfit The Sports, Stephen Cummings has gained a reputation for making consistently rewarding albums. There's been seven in fact. Some have achieved moderate commercial success. Most have had critics stretching for superlatives.
Escapist has Cummings teamed with producer Steve Kilbey (The Church). It was Kilbey who produced Cummings' last studio effort, Falling Swinger. Escapist draws a richer texture than Swinger, and sees the partnership bringing more consistent results. There's more variety in the song selection, and Cummings' delivery has regained its bite.
The bulk of the material was written by Cummings in a series of collaborations. Jeff Burstin (Black Sorrows) co-writes the disc's opener and closer, 'You're A Dream' and 'Everything Breaks Your Heart'. The latter sounds like a George Harrison outtake circa 'All Things Must Pass' - which equals a big thumbs up in this book.
Robert Goodge (ex-I'm Talking) has a hand in another standout cut, 'When God Is In Heaven'. Kilbey contributes material. One of the strongest moments on the album is 'Taken By Surprise' - written by Kilbey and his partner Karin Jansson. The song was released by Jansson under the guise of Curious Yellow half a decade ago.
The only real flaw with the album is the first single 'Sometimes' - which is one big yawn. The rest of the album is beautifully played and drips with maturity, grace and a strange hypnotic style.
An abbreviated version of this review appeared the following day in the Courier Mail, but curiously, that version appeared under the name Peter Cartwright
* * out of * * * * *
review by Shane Danielsen - Sydney Morning Herald, 8 July 1996
With a novel, Wonderboy, just out and his reputation as a jaded urban sophisticate to maintain, one could forgive Cummings for not attending quite so diligently to his songwriting as he might have. Here he has teamed up again with Steve Kilbey, who produces as well as plays some guitar and bass, but their union is less fruitful than on Falling Swinger. Nothing here possesses the same musical forcefulness or emotional resonance as that album's Big Room or Fell From A Great Height.
His cover of Curious Yellow's Taken by Surprise works well and a few songs (The Brighter The Light, written with Chris Abrahams, and Anyone, co-authored with Kilbey) maintain interest, but way too much of this (You're A Dream, Sometimes, I Will Follow You) is just dull, the kind of plodding, autopilot-AOR you expect from men with half his talent. That fragile, regretful voice will sustain us, but only just.
* * * 1/2 out of * * * * *
review by Chris Johnston - Australian Rolling Stone magazine, August 1996
To follow up last year's acclaimed and adventurous Falling Swinger, [hello? did he say last year? - ed] the strictly-Melbourne Stephen Cummings releases Escapist, his eighth solo album since the disintegration of the Sports. Escapist continues the experimentation of Falling Swinger by again enlisting errant Church main man Steve Kilbey as producer and collaborator. Fellow one-time Church members Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes appear as guests, as well as pianist Chris Abrahams. Lovetown-era Cummings is represented in the sensitive urban ballads, "The Brighter The Light" and a mistily countrified "Everything Breaks Your Heart". The key tracks, however, pursue different angles. "Sometimes" is a mantra of chopped-up guitars, reversed vocals and heavy beats somewhere near the prototype of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows"; "When God Is In Heaven" is ambient techno beatnik blues; and "I Will Follow You" a slippery hiphop-tinged mystery.
9 out of 10
by Antonino Tati - Beat magazine, 28/8/96-3/9/96
Veteran of Australian rock, roll, pop and soul. The man behind the hookline "I feel better now" in all those Medibank Private ads. The man who once sung rhetorically, Who Listens To The Radio? and may well regret it now that most paranoid pony tailed pig-headed programmers seem to have taken offense in opting not to play his solo material, when it really deserves to be aired for all to hear.
Cummings' compositions, in particular most of them on this, his ninth album, are awe-inspiring with their lyrical themes often found to be down in the dumps, but their musical themes as celestial as an endless bright blue sky.
Thanks to the productive hand of Steve Kilbey, the eloquent arrangements on ethereal tracks like Midnight In America, You're A Dream and Taken by Surprise can't help to remind the listener of those holy Church days where Under The Milky Way was a soothing alternative soundtrack to a generation of Aussie rock music listeners tired of the old heavy metal formula.
May the soothing vibes continue on your tenth epic LP, Mr Cummings.
by Barry Divola - Who Weekly, 2 September 1996
Like Ed Kuepper, Stephen Cummings seems to inhabit a twilight zone in Australian Music. For years he has quietly released a stream of albums which the critics rave about, but his career seems to be in some sort of "adult-oriented" ghetto. Escapist, despite its understated experimentation and dark atmospherics, probably won't get him out of the cul-de-sac.
The album's first single, "Sometimes", benefits from the shuddering echo-chamber treatment it receives courtesy of the knob-twirling of the Church's Steve Kilbey, but "Anyone" and "Sleep with me" are more like dirgy Church out-takes. "The brighter the light", on the other hand, is a big, dark ballad with a silver lining contained in the lyrics such as "there will be better times than these". Cummings should offer this to Nick Cave immediately.
Downbeat and simple, Escapist isn't always the quiet achiever it should be. Cummings has one of those conspiratorial voices that whispers in your ear, but some of the songs are too flat, and need more of a sting to grab the listener. In his time with the Sports, Cummings sang "Who listens to the radio?" He needs to ask that question again.
by Brian Wise - Rhythms magazine, August 1996
Stephen Cummings made a very brave move on his last album. Rather than opt for the usual path that seemed to be beckoning him - the odd catchy hit that might chart and help the album sell well enough for him to recycle the old songs in concert - he took a sharp left hand turn and ran into Steve Kilbey of the Church. What this has enabled Cummings to do is to broaden his music for a while, take control of his own creativity and also demonstrate a different aspect to his personality. The days of "Gymnasium" are erased by this album and its predecessor; although, to be fair Cummings has been steadily moving away from the 'pop' genre for quite some years now. What concerns Cummings these days is the use of atmosphere and the creation of a recording that will stand the test of time. By the same token, Kilbey's influence is powerful - the shimmering guitars, the effects, the vocal harmonies. Peter Koppes and Marty Wilson-Piper are also involved. (Hell, this is a really good Church album!) But rather than Cummings using this as a vehicle to somehow appear 'contemporary' he utilises Kilbey to extend his musical language.
Similarly, he enlists other writers to flesh out the material - Kilbey, Jeff Burstin, Chris Abrahams, long-time collaborator Robert Goodge and others. What most impresses about "Escapist" - an apt title - is the fact that is able to reveal something new with each listen. While I suspect that it is not going to be a huge hit on the charts this album is going to at least have longevity. Put it on late at night, turn to the melancholy "The Brighter The Light", and you will see what I mean.
review by Jeff Jenkins, TV Week
Stephen Cummings remains Australia's finest singer and songwriter on Escapist, his eighth solo album. The cover and booklet contain no picture of Cummings or lyrics...just sheep. But Cummings is no sheep when it comes to music. He's following his own eclectic path, and it's a journey that has jazz, country and dance influences. Escapist is his second album with producer Steve Kilbey (The Church), following 1994's Falling Swinger. It includes two Cummings classics - Pretty Big Crush and The Lost Girl - as well as The Brighter The Light, which is a perfect companion for an earlier masterpiece, Blue Hour. If George Michael wants to make a captivating adult record, all he need do is listen to Stephen Cummings.
CD of the week
by Brian Wise, Sunday Age, Melbourne, 14 July 1996
Cummings, with producer Steve Kilbey from The Church, further explores the musical possibilities begun on his previous recording. This is probably a watershed in the singer's career as he charts his future musical direction. Rather than take the easy way, Cummings chooses to challenge us (and himself, presumably). The title (Escapist) aptly describes the music within as the songs break free of pop constraints and pursue the use of atmospherics while highlighting Cummings increasingly expressive voice. The music is effective because, rather than leaping out at the listener, it invites a closer inspection. Not all the songs are immediately accessible but The Brighter The Light, Pretty Big Crush, Taken By Surprise and When God Is In Heaven are outstanding.
by Shaun Carney, The Age Green Guide, Melbourne, 27 June 1996
Stephen Cummings stands out as one of the enduring figures of Australian music, a consummate singer and composer who, over the past dozen or so years, has progressed from groovy nightclub crooner to understated acoustic pop/rock auteur.
With his latest album, Escapist, Cummings has moved on again, this time in the direction of an atmospheric, production-centred, form of record-making. It is a dramatic change, only hinted at on Cummings's previous album, Falling Swinger.
Producer Steve Kilbey has clearly encouraged Cummings in this direction, in which the singer's previous heavy reliance on melody has been rolled back to allow for a fuller and more varied sound. It works and the most engaging by-product is the strength of Cummings's vocal performances, which are looser and more powerful than ever.
He even does his own backing vocals on the choruses, giving Escapist a strong vocal trademark. As all good artists do, Cummings continues to move on, in order to produce rewarding work. Escapist is such a work.
by Scott Howlett, X Press Magazine, 27 June 1996
A consistently inspiring and emotive singer and songwriter, Stephen Cummings' problem in the marketplace has always been that he does not have an identifiable image, not belter, boozer, poser or pop star. This is a pity. His undoubted talent has been passed over many times simply because he's not the sort of bloke who easily or readily talks about himself.
Escapist, again produced by The Church's Steve Kilbey, is a rich album of 'songs' - good songs - but none which immediately register as essential cuts.
Sadly, for Cummings, it's another good album which unfortunately is not 'great' enough to impress as being 'the breakthrough' from the somewhat obscure plateau he's been standing upon since the demise of The Sports in 1981 and his only big solo hit, Gymnasium, in 1984.
by Anthony Horan, Inpress, 21 August 1996
The chameleonic Stephen Cummings hit on the perfect artistic coupling a couple of years ago, recording his Falling Swinger album with Steve Kilbey enlisted as producer and musical collaborator. Cummings' husky, languid vocal delivery - itself a product of his backing off from direct pop music in recent years - meshed perfectly with Kilbey's gentle, filmic production, and brought his music to a whole new audience. Every good collaboration deserves a sequel, and Escapist reunites Cummings and Kilbey for another disparate collection of songs.
This time around, the teaming has produced some unexpected song choices. Taken By Surprise, the current single, was almost a hit for the Steve Kilbey/Karin Jansson project Curious (Yellow) back in 1990; the version here is more direct, less complex, and sounds for all the world - or at least to those unfamiliar with the original - as if it were Cummings' from the outset. Then there's Anyone, a completely new song played out over the processed backing track of It Could Be Anyone from the new Church album, Sleep With Me from Kilbey's Narcosis EP, and Midnight In America from the upcoming re-release of that EP (the latter also with original backing intact). But that's part and parcel of collaborating with Steve Kilbey, and the matching of familiar songs to a new voice is fascinating and usually successful.
Cummings has spent time writing with Robert Goodge for this record, his work with Shane O'Mara temporarily suspended. Goodge's tranquil grooves add a perfectly nocturnal feel to proceedings, with The Lost Girl a particular highlight.
As a vocalist, Stephen Cummings is an acquired taste for many, and on this record he often comes dangerously close to sounding disinterested - certainly not the intention. But his songwriting, and the ease with which he crosses from genre to genre without sounding the least bit out of place, is the clue to Cummings' longevity. Sometimes flawed but always fascinating, Escapist is another step by Cummings toward a return to mainstream popularity and the attendant attention.
by Michael Smith, The Drum Media, 1 October 1996
Steven Kilbey may have produced Escapist but there's a lot of engineer Simon Polinski's penchant for "found" or ambient sounds on this latest album from Stephen Cummings, weaving in and out of the sparse tapestry of instrumentation Kilbey and Cummings have chosen to utilise on this shimmering collection of hypnotic songs. It's Kilbey though, not Polinski, making many of those assorted noises, and there's an inevitable tendency towards the sound of the band that has made him internationally famous, enhanced here and there by the fact that both guitarists and the new drummer with The Church appear on various tracks throughout the album.
And the marriage works superbly, as it did on Cummings' previous album Falling Swinger. Two more compatible talents you couldn't hope to meet, and Cummings brings a fine sensitivity to the songs Kilbey contributes to the set. Also adding their songwriting talents as well as their musical talents to Escapist are Cummings' long-time guitarist, Robert Goodge, pianist Chris Abrahams and singer/songwriter Karin Jansson, and each adds their own unique colour to this subtly textured collection.
The effect though is pretty lowkey, with verses drifting around, occasionally teetering ever so closely to somnambulance, only to be lifted up by some of the most sumptuous of choruses, sometimes caressing the listener, as on Midnight In America, sometimes stubbornly determined to stay with the groove, as on When God Is In Heaven. It's an album of moods and atmospheres, thoughts vague and fleeting, feelings simple and drifting, swirling and hypnotic by turns, as on I Will Follow. Then you literally are Taken By Surprise, with its midtempo upbeat vibe. And by Anyone, powered by Michael Sheridan's noise guitar and African rhythms.
Cummings has nothing to prove anymore, so it's up to you to choose to join him for the ride. And Escapist is still a ride worth taking.