My introduction to William Crighton and his music came in a church hall in Sydney’s Paddington a few weeks ago. He was supporting Melody Pool and as he appeared onstage, his tall frame covered by a lumberjack shirt, jeans and boots, he looked like he belonged on Mount Kosciuszko, hewing logs out of massive trees. Then he opened his mouth to sing and everything else went quiet. At first I couldn’t quite get a handle on his voice: his rolling, tumbling way of articulating lyrics took a little bit of getting used to but after one song it seemed logical. There was no other way for him to sing. There was no other way to want him to sing.
The songs on Crighton's debut self-titled album were, as he says in the liner notes, written when he lived near Burrinjuck Dam in south-western New South Wales. The relative solitude of that part of that world can be heard in the space between notes and lyrics that is characteristic of the ten songs (and one extra version of ‘Woman like you’) on this remarkable piece of work.
On ‘2000 clicks’, written with his brother, Crighton references Cold Chisel and offers an alternative anthem for young Australian men, as he does on ‘Riverina kid’. On ‘Woman like you’ he sings ‘I’d never treat a woman like you like that’ which immediately prompts the question, Which woman would you treat like that? And that’s part of the appeal of this album: it’s a challenge, and it makes the listener concentrate and think, for profound rewards. Those rewards include the knowledge that you’re listening to a jewel, something as close to unique as it’s possible to get in a world where everything seems to reference everything else and there’s nothing new under the sun.
It’s clear why Pool chose him to accompany her on tour: despite great differences in musical style, they both understand how to write layered lyrics; how to be honest and mysterious at the same time; how to deliver a song so straight that it’s heartbreaking. Neither is interested in fakery, nor in being unsophisticated.
Crighton’s album leaves an indelible impression, as does his live performance. He is, at least to my way of thinking, one of the most important Australian singer-songwriters to emerge in the last few years. His reference to Cold Chisel is not an idiosyncrasy: several of their songs documented Australian life in a way no other act’s did at the time, and Crighton has taken that tree-felling axe and cracked open a similar vein in the earth. The Australian landscape, the distance between us, the way we tell ourselves and each other she’ll be right, mate and mean it even when we don’t, are all in these songs. This is not just an important album, it’s a bloody good one – and that’s the highest compliment any Australian can give.
William Crighton is out now through ABC Music/Universal.