Hell Breaks Loose is Shane Nicholson’s first solo album since Bad Machines in 2011. He’s been busy in the years between, releasing Wreck & Ruin with Kasey Chambers and a live album of his own (Pitch, Roll & Yaw), and proving himself to be an extremely adept producer of other people’s albums. For his own record, though, he turned to another accomplished Australian producer, Matt Fell.
Perhaps it is Fell who brought out Nicholson’s pop sensibilities more than we’ve seen over the past few years. Nicholson’s first two solo albums, It’s a Movie and Faith & Science, were studies in how to create great pop songs – ‘indie pop’, if one has to put a term on them, even ‘indie rock’, where neither term is meant as a pejorative. Those albums didn’t feature country music songs, although he has proved several times over that he can write great country songs too. On Hell Breaks Loose, both parts of his lineage come together in a seamless way to create an exceptional piece of work.
There are three songs literally at the core of this 13-track album – tracks 6, 7 and 8 – which are also the core of what Hell Breaks Loose seems to be about: essentially, what happens to a thoughtful man when his life takes a turn that he didn’t expect. ‘One Big Mess’, ‘Secondhand Man’ and ‘Hermannsburg’ all contain elements of despair – ‘One Big Mess’, in particular – but there’s also a vein of hope running through them. They seem to describe Nicholson’s state of mind – state of being, perhaps – as he made this album. They’re his present, and also his past and future. It took repeated listening to realise that these three songs don’t really act alone – they should be listened to as a triptych. And, from them, an understanding and appreciation of the rest of the album grows. In ‘Hermannsburg’ Nicholson sings that he arrived in that place ‘a broken man’ – then, ‘I wonder who I will be after Hermannsburg’. He sings it with a touch of curiosity, though, not confusion, and therein lies the hope.
The rest of this album contains songs of a high standard and variety that fans of Nicholson would expect. Country music fans will find plenty to love in ‘Irons & Chains’, ‘Slow Coach’ and ‘When the Money’s All Gone’; the reflective, plaintive ‘Single Fathers’ is a lullabye of sorts, and ‘Hell Breaks Loose’ harkens back to ‘Long Time Coming’ from 2008’s Familiar Ghost.
That there’s a broad palette of moods on this album doesn’t mean, however, that there’s necessarily something for everyone. This is not an album for easy listening or background noise. It’s a piece of art and should be treated accordingly. And don’t be surprised if, after a few goes round the turntable, you find that as you listen to those three songs in the middle your heart quietly breaks, just as Nicholson’s must have, and then continue listening as he puts it back together again.
Hell Breaks Loose is out now through Lost Highway Australia/Universal.