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Spiritual Bum

9 out of 10

by Toby Creswell - Juice magazine, 1999

NOTE: For this review, Toby was working from a test pressing of the album when it carried the tentative title "Wishing Machine".

With this quietly optimistic album, one of Australia's finest songwriters returns from a three year hiatus with some of his best ever songs. Cummings has turned away from the world of pop, creating his own personal category from a diverse range of influences, so that while these appear to be folk-styled confessional singer/songwriter ditties, they are far more sophisticated than that.

Like Nick Cave, John Cale or Bob Dylan, Cummings has pursued his own muse into new territory where the melodies and arrangements are both comforting and disturbing. For this particular adventure he has been accompanied by Ashley Naylor from Even, Black Sorrows Jeff Burstin and Peter Luscombe and dance remixer Robert Goodge, who has moved to guitar and mandolin. It's this eclectic group of tastes that is the backbone of the album.

So many of Cumming's songs take place at twilight, that melancholy hour when the world changes from the harsh light of day to a dream time. It's these moments of clarity - when emotional truths can be seen most starkly - that are the highlights of the album: "It's Raining", "Such Luck To Be Alive" and "Half Light" where the singer focuses on the details of ordinary life and illuminates them gently. Cummings is not a man given to flashy sentiment or unrealistic dreams but rather one who finds joy in the bittersweet. At times (on previous albums like Falling Swinger) he has lapsed into morose darkness, but this album is anything but.

The centrepiece of the album is its title track [Wishing Machine - see note above], one of Cummings best pop songs that self consciously recalls Rod Stewart's early Mercury years, with Naylor's guitar even besting Ronnie Wood and Goodge's mandolin adding delightful colour.

These are a dozen songs that will haunt you long after the passing parade of pop has moved on.

Spiritual Bum

* * *

by Michael Dwyer - Australian Rolling Stone magazine, issue 563, July 1999

Mr Rainy presents a familiar kind of blue.

If consistency is a virtue, Stephen Cummings is overdue for the Queen's honours list. After maintaining his distinctive cool under Steve Kilbey's atmospheric smokescreen for two albums, the rainy day crooner has reverted to his clean, melancholic acoustic style with restrained accompanists both new (notably Even's Ash Naylor) and familiar (Melbourne Mafioso alert). As always, Spiritual Bum is a case of the moodier the better. The upbeat likes of 'Nobody Could Ever Feel This Way' and 'Wishing Machine' are laboured non-events; 'It's Raining' and 'Because It's Spring' are cloudy-eyed gems. Jeff Burstin's guitar work elevates the especially dark 'Such Luck To Be Alive' and 'Poor Baby' to all-time Cummings highs even if that top ten smash remains on the other side of the foggy café window.

Beauty In The Half Light

by Andrew Tanner - Addicted To Noise (Australia), 20 July 1999

Understated but always elegant and generous

Like the man himself, Stephen Cummings' grown up pop has always had a five o'clock shadow. Self deprecating, understated, but always elegant and generous - and always awash with a gentle melancholy.

Cummings' latest album Spiritual Bum follows two Steve Kilbey produced efforts, and in many ways takes its character in opposition to them. As Cummings himself states in the CD ROM component of the album, "I wanted to make things really stripped back, with the vocal really loud. I really wanted to make more of an acoustic record. Simple and to the point. It's really the thing of the song and the singer." Certainly the new album redresses some of the criticisms levelled at The Escapist [sic] and Falling Swinger, in the sense that the lush ambience of the production tended to overwhelm the songs at times.

Cummings' cohorts on the new album include dance producer Robert Goodge, Even's Ashley Naylor and ex-Black Sorrows Peter Luscombe and Jeff Burstin. Like Blood On The Tracks or Automatic For The People, the acoustic textures and minimalist playing on Spiritual Bum focus attention firmly on the songs, and they more than reward the effort. "Wishing Machine" (the album's original working title) is a lovely pop song, its jaunty mandolin (courtesy of Goodge) and muscular acoustics recalling Rod Stewart in his non-crap period. Cummings is rightly renowned for his ability to cut through cliche to some uncompromising emotional truths, and the new songs are no exception. Though dark, "Such Luck To Be Alive," "Poor Baby" and "Half Light" avoid becoming depressing via their elegant simplicity. In Stephen Cummings' world, it is not really pissing down, just misty.

It is one of the great ironies of Australian music that Stephen Cummings is known (unconsciously) by most of the general populace as the voice on a health insurance ad. His catalogue of albums elegantly portray the dis-ease of modern urban living better than most, and on his latest album he proves once again that this is one Spiritual Bum who deserves more than our loose change.

Spiritual Bum


Sun Herald, 25 July 1999

Having satisfied his craving for more densely atmospheric sounds across two albums with Steve Kilbey at the helm, Melbourne's answer to Bryan Ferry returns to the acoustic shadings of his 1987 masterpiece, Lovetown. Aided by Melbourne stalwarts such as Jeff Burstin, Bruce Haymes and Peter Luscombe, Spiritual Bum contains 11 folk and country flavoured ballads and one groove-based workout (Don't Talk to Me About Love). Other than the gorgeous Because It's Spring, this rambling collection houses nothing as memorable as You Jane, She Set Fire To The House or September 13, and is crying out for some ruthless editing.

Spiritual Bum

by Jeff Jenkins - Inpress, 28 July 1999

There's a moment at the end of "The Half Light", one of the songs on Stephen Cummings new album Spiritual Bum, that's as beautiful as anything he has recorded in a glittering pop career. I won't spoil it - discover it yourself - but it's like a compelling ending to a short story. No matter how many times I've heard it - and already it's probably more than 100 - it strikes me in the heart every time.

Spiritual Bum is a great Stephen Cummings album. Nine albums in to his solo career (excluding two compilations), he can still come up with magical surprises. After two albums with producer Steve Kilbey (when one would have been enough), both of which were big on soundscapes and atmosphere, he has made a wonderfully simple and direct pop record. And this is not ten very sad songs. Spiritual Bum contains the most optimistic and positive love and life songs that Stephen has recorded. "I'm filled with a crazy kind of hope" he sings on his third track, "Such Luck To Be Alive".

    "I'm alive/I'm alive to the moment" (The Night Is Singing)

Are you getting married? Forget the latest Diane Warren-penned balled, Spiritual Bum's "Because It's Spring" is the best real love song you'll hear this year, "Because it's spring we can do anything/And you and I are more than you and I... Because your taste is on my lips/And my hand is on your hips......"

Spiritual Bum is something old (Stephen is reunited with Shane O'Mara and Rebecca Barnard. Her soft, sweet backing vocals on Poor Baby are a treat); something new (Even's Ashley Naylor plays on three tracks and co-wrote one); something borrowed (It's Raining is Stephen's song version of a Guillaume Apollinaire poem); something (a new kind of) Blue.

The album opens with the countryish "Nobody Ever Could Ever Feel This Way" and closes with the country-tinged "Straight To Your Arms". In between are several songs that will rank alongside his best work, including "Sad To Go", "Shaped Like Love" and "The Half Light". And "Wishing Machine" deserves to be a hit, if not by Stephen, then surely by Rod Stewart because it sounds like a classic early Rod Stewart song.

The radio single, "Don't Talk To Me About Love", strikes the only discordant note. It's probably the "hippest" sounding song on the album, hinting at the dance beats that Stephen has explored in the past. It's a strong song, but probably out of place on this record, with it's bitter and negative lyric. Stephen Cummings has never made a bad record, but Spiritual Bum is a classic. One to put alongside Lovetown.

Spiritual Bum

by Shaun Carney - The Age Green Guide, 29 July 1999

For his 9th album of original material, Melbourne singer Stephen Cummings has gone right back to basics, augmenting his established collaborative team of Robert Goodge, Bill McDonald, Shane O'Mara, Rebecca Barnard, the Luscombe brothers and Jeff Burstin with guitarist Ashley Naylor from Even. The stark, mostly unadorned accoustic sound of Spiritual Bum is a light year away from the layered approach overseen by producer Steve Kilbey on Cumming's two previous outings. But these 12 confidently-delivered songs of emotional bewilderment and celebration are close to the sort of work Cumming's devoted fans know & love. 21 years after his 1st record, he's still got it.

Spiritual Bum

review by Mitchell Peters - Courier Mail, 30 July 1999

If rock critics could be rock stars, they'd all want to write songs like Stephen Cummings. Literate, knowledgeable, and slightly world weary, Stephen Cummings has the rare ability to create his own small vestibule. To these ears, Spiritual Bum is a return to form for the writer. His later work, produced by Steve Kilbey, was possibly ill directed. Under his own hand, Cummings allows the words to rise to the surface ... and that's always been his charm.

Twelve songs adorn the new disc, and it's hard to choose favourites. The album is striking on first listen, and improves with repeated plays. `Poor Baby', `Sad To Go' and `It's Raining' rank among his finer works. `Such Luck To Be Alive' is in the best ten songs Cummings has put to bed - ever. The album is worth buying for the line `drinking the heart out of the afternoon/such luck to be alive/I don't wanna spend my days/making boozy sad jokes'.

Spiritual Bum is a low-key affair. This is a quiet record that draws you into the very breath of the songs (certain tracks appear without drums). Cummings' collaborators on the record include Jeff Burstin, David Bridie, Rebecca Barnard and Ashley Naylor (Even). Still, the cameos are subtle, nothing draws attention from Cummings' engaging turn of phrase.

Overseas magazines wax lyrical about the might of Ron Sexsmith. Cummings' work should be spoken about with equal fervour. Alongside Neil Finn and Paul Kelly, he remains Australia's most treasured songwriter. Try these: Lovetown, This Wonderful Life and A New Kind Of Blue.

Album of the Week

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review by Sean Sennett - Timeoff magazine, 4 August 1999

This latest instalment from the grand master of Australian pop has been well worth the wait. The 'Steve Kilbey years' have been wiped from memory and Melbourne's finest has emerged intact, with 12 glorious new songs under his arm.

Recorded in a series of small Melbourne studios, Cummings has been joined on the journey by such luminaries as Rebecca Barnard (Rebecca's Empire), Ashley Naylor (Even), David Bridie and Jeff Burstin.

The album opens with the swaying 'Nobody Ever Could Make Me Feel This Way'. A hypnotic Dylan-esque dirge, the song wouldn't have been out of place on Bob's Self Portrait.

Choosing favourites isn't particularly an easy task. 'It's Raining', adapted from a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire, is an early highlight. 'Such Luck To Be Alive' is as equally grand as it is a sombre meditation. 'Shaped Like Love' also brings the heart strings snapping to attention.

Spiritual Bum, like most of Cummings' better work, requires the listener to sit alone and to... listen. This isn't music for parties. This is music to drum your fingers on your chest to. This is music to absorb through the skin. File the great man under 'national treasure'.

Spiritual Bum

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review by Paul Isbel - Citysearch, 9 September 1999

Yet again with this, his 11th solo album since 1984's Senso, Stephen Cummings proves himself to be one of the country's best balladeers. Like Sydney's Peter Milton Walsh (of The Apertments), Cummings builds mesmeric moments with simple instrumentation, incantatory lyrics and a voice that is a magnet of emotions. Once the nervy frontman for The Sports, Cummings has made a greater name for himself crafting consummate adult pop. Spiritual Bum is probably his best album and is better than most releases by any artist anywhere this year.

Although the guitar leads this set of jazz-tinged folk pop, Cummings has the support of some of Melbourne's more intelligent and accomplished musicians to embellish the languid, reflective sounds of the album. The Luscombes, David Bridie, Shane O'Mara and Rebecca Barnard all play here, but it's Jeff Burstin's presence as multi-instrumentalist and co-songwriter (Such Luck To Be Alive, Shaped Like Love and the Go Betweens-like Sad To Go and Because It's Spring) that assures the record of class.

[It's] Rain[ing], a tune set to lyrics by French symbolist Guillaume Apollinaire, and The Night Is Singing would fit on The Beatles' Rubber Soul but it's The Half Light that stands as the triumph of Spiritual Bum, a sound that is sublimely his own.

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