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This Wonderful Life

by Toby Creswell

(from Australian Rolling Stone magazine, September 1986 - issue no. 402)

Stephen Cummings lives in Melbourne, Victoria. A port city at the bottom of the world, a town with an aged and imposing architecture astride wide and windy streets, Melbourne is a lonely town. The beaches of St Kilda have been poisoned, the Picasso has been stolen, the sunsets are all a kind of polycarbon colour, the baby keeps him awake and even the football has left town, while the Longford Cinema shows only black and white. This wonderful life indeed!

Cummings' melancholia has turned to solipsism; he is oppressed by a desire that has no face and no name. "Do you believe that love goes on forever?" he croons in "Lovestreams". Love, desire, lust, agape, eros, all mingle together as a force which squeezes sad songs from his throat. It's desire that runs through this record, larger than life itself. There is an otherworldliness that makes these romantic ballads more than simply songs of love lost or yet to come. This is an album about the 3am nameless yearning.

In the Middle Ages, melancholia was referred to as a disease, a humour of black bile. As Cummings approaches middle age, his new LP is not so much psychotic as nervous. It's offbeat and downbeat and it goes for an emotional response along a sly route; sentiment catches you off guard like a feint in the boxing ring.

Cummings' collaborators, chiefly Dean Richards from Whirlywirld, Hot Half Hour and Equal Local, and Andrew Pendlebury of the Sports and the Slaughtermen, are accomplices in this subversion, with their intricate arrangements and the restrained performances of the band. What is an apparently slick and laidback collection of love songs actually packs an enormous punch. The parts are executed unerringly while the sounds are neatly balanced between the acoustic and synthesised keyboards drawing from jazz and soul. The end result is as idiosyncratic as it is understated.

Much of the album is composed of tales of the city - a life that one is thrust into and swims in as best one can. "Love Is Crucial But Money Is Everything", "This Is The Way", "Forbidden Territory", are existential dilemmas: how to make sense of experience, how to live with grace under pressure? Indeed Hemingway would be proud of this album and its recurring theme of the nature of male identity. Cummings throws up male archetypes from the cinema: actor/director John Cassavetes, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra: men of few words, men of action, men with grace who have come to terms with their dark sides and their drinking problems, archetypes of the unknowable male.

There is a strength that runs through this album which saves the sentiment from becoming maudlin. While Cummings' characters could easily sound resigned, they instead sound strong in their lonesomeness. Cummings' singing sounds stronger than it has in some years and he has a control over the material, exhibiting a dexterity that hasn't been in evidence since the Sports recorded "Don't Throw Stones" many years ago.

Ultimately This Wonderful Life is not a record destined for an immediate impact on the charts. It's too modern, sophisticated, intelligent and passionate for that.

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