A B O U T
David Bridie is a songwriter who tells Australian stories. Some of them are set in the suburbs and streets of our towns; in our rambling backyards and cluttered kitchens and jumbled lounge rooms. There always seems to be an embrace or an argument in progress going on in there.
Other stories speak to a land of wide open spaces, where we look to the horizon and see everything and nothing at the same time. Salt pans and spinifex and mulga scrub. A land that belongs to those who were here first and who will know it more intimately than we ever will. Europeans have been here for 230 years and we’re just getting our head around the joint.
Other stories look beyond our shores, over the seas. They look to the low, sinking islands of our Melanesian neighbours in the Pacific, and northwards to the heat and thick humidity of West Papua and New Guinea. Some places, like Manus and Nauru, are prisoner’s islands like ours. History has a way of repeating itself.
The Wisdom Line is David Bridie’s sixth solo album, depending on how you count these things. It’s a complicated discography, going back to 1983, when he started Not Drowning, Waving with John Phillips. NDW were unique. Over a decade, they made six albums, finding sounds and songs in strange landscapes from Palau to Rabaul; Thomastown to the Little Desert.
There were seven more albums with chamber-pop group My Friend the Chocolate Cake, who finally finished up this year after a 28-year run. A band you couldn’t be in unless you could carry your instrument on public transport, playing intimate songs for intimate spaces. Cake were an intergenerational kind of band. Parents took their kids to see them. Some kids even took their parents. My brother and I took my mum, once.
In between, there have been too many soundtracks to keep track of – pieces of music accompanying stories told by other people. And productions and collaborations with artists like Christine Anu, Yothu Yindi and Papua New Guinea’s George Telek, with whom he first worked on Not Drowning, Waving’s celebrated album Tabaran.
Along the way, there have been ARIA awards and critical acclaim and international releases and festival performances all over the world, including with artists signed to the not-for-profit label Wantok, set up to foster collaborations with Aboriginal and Melanesian musicians. Like the country, it’s a long story.
The Wisdom Line is the culmination of 35 years of work, but it’s also on a continuum. At first pass, it sounds spare and atmospheric and ambient, almost a return to the sound of Not Drowning, Waving’s debut Another Pond – and that’s Johnny Phillips on guitar, as spectral a presence as ever, so unobtrusive he’s barely there, yet he still sounds like no one else.
But there’s always a bit more going on than you think. There are big songs with grains of truth, like the opening Red (2000 Miles) and smaller songs that reveal bigger ones, like Melbourne, where David lives. It’s an album about what it means to be home – whether home is the city, suburb or town you grew up in, or you’ve been displaced, or you were here first.
While most of the tracks are based on David’s piano and vocals, there are also narcotic grooves, like the deep bass underpinning Umari (Permanent Water), that hark back to later Not Drowning, Waving. The whimsical harmonium-backed Hemdyn Town and She’s Upped and Gone feature spoken-word pieces on ageing, connections and memory.
It’s also an album about who we are and who we might yet be. This might be the best place, but as David tells us, that’s a low bar. The Wisdom Line finds hope and grace amid the ruins, and in its final closing track, The Abyss, he implores us not to look away: “Don’t stand accused of burying your head on the great Australian silence.”
The Wisdom Line is a record that demands your time but also rewards it. It connects, in a world where we’re more connected than ever, and yet we too rarely look up from our phones. It observes, and it reminds us that the world is watching us, too. It speaks, when for most of us “the carnival is over, and we’re just singing to the choir”. Listen.