‘The Great Tasmanian Escape’ can proudly take its place amongst the great Australian albums and songs that beautifully capture the landscapes, skies and very heart of the land. Albums from The Triffids’ ‘Born Sandy Devotional’ capturing the Western Australian coastlines and the sense of isolation, to The Go-Betweens’ ’16 Lovers Lane’ reflecting the urban ennuis of Brisbane leavened by the dappled sunshine sound. There are bands and artists like Midnight Oil, Paul Kelly and Courtney Barnett who have managed to capture something unique about the country and its people through a personal impassioned lense. In ‘The Great Tasmanian Escape’, Christopher Coleman and The Great Escape have joined the ranks of these eminent bands by exquisitely capturing the soul of the wild island at the edge of the world – both the dark and the light.
‘The Great Tasmaniana Escape’ is essentially a personal voyage around Tasmania – a semi autobiographical journey through the cities, towns and wild isolated places in the island, filled with darkness and light, but linked to a character called Jesse, a returned veteran. It’s as much an escape from personal demons and small town ennuis as much as an escape to a sense of belonging and home.
The album departs from Sydney – the setting off point for this journey – with the track ‘Petersham Lament’, that iconic inner west Sydney suburbs (with references to easily identifiable restaurants) and an acute sense of isolation and distance – Now I’m not hungry for food, just starving for one word from you. There is a quiet desperation and sense of anticipation in the long chaotic instrumentation at the opening before Coleman’s yearning voice enters the fray – adding a sense of calm restraint to the turbulent wash of music.
We then land in Hobart with ‘Beaumaris Zoo’, referencing the home of the last ever thylacine (the Tasmanian Tiger) held in captivity – an immense tragedy in itself but used by Coleman as a palimpsest for an endless search (the great Tasmanian Escape). The raw and visceral dismissal of the capital city reflects in a few simple words the loss of the Tasmanian Tiger and the dark colonial history:
Hobart's always been a cemetery A zoo for the weak A stage for the war Hobart's always been alright for a week Parliament lawns, a grave for the poor
This is a simply gorgeous tune: it has the widescreen cinematic scope of Bruce Springsteen with its visceral storytelling and the capture of something deeply personal – a yearning for anonymity, escape and immersion – written against the wild landscapes (I’ll find my tiger there).
Coleman’s poetic eye is never clearer than in ‘New Norfolk’ – even down to referencing the bizarre practice of the local newspapers to list who is appearing in court on a daily basis – a ritualistic form of stocks, shaming criminals in public places. Coleman details the minutiae of everyday with an epic beauty and poignancy.
The journey then takes us to ‘Queenstown Crows’ – an isolated town in the middle of the wilderness area surrounded by bleak deforested slag heaps where chemicals from mining leached and poisoned the landscape. In this track Coleman uses the local Australian Football League team – famously playing on the only gravelled football ground in Australia – as a symbol of proud and fierce resilience in a town buffeted by mine closures and economic gale force winds.
From the geographical to the personal, ‘Amelia’ has a raw earthiness and sincerity that seemingly reflects the landscapes and shines with a brittle edge. Framed by horns, Coleman’s poetic lyricism is evocative, filled with a sense of yearning and romanticism over a clattering, sparse percussive rhythm – a faltering heartbeat under the skin. The timbre and tone take the form of a slow burning dance: infused with a folk tradition that twirls in the dust and yet sparkles with a certain urban wryness.
The lyrics are evocative and filled with a sense of poignancy, reflecting the themes of the album:
The sunset told me only of a future not alone The champagne glass cracked at last The wine had overflowed Amelia Amelia Holds the broken glass
Coleman says of the track:
‘Amelia’ is a gorgeous little waltz… another musing on the story forever told; of love being the crux and only true inspiration to embrace and make proper change. I whittled this tune out on my 30th birthday, it was all champagne and five stars. But not so long after I gave up the drink and on the release of this tune, it’s nearly two years to the day. A good move.
As we geographical round the Northwest of Tasmania, ‘Paloona’ is cinematic, its delivery anthemic and the instrumentation unbound.
The song captures a sense of the geographical bindings that hold and change us:
I turn to you
I always do
My heart is true
And yet buried deep is a sense of tragedy and history that stain the land:
Your heart, your hand
Their sea, Their land
Coleman says of the track:
‘Paloona’ came about towards the end of putting the record together. It was always down on the map that I was working from, but I didn’t realise at the time of marking it down that it is a hydropower station 20km from anything remotely residential. So the commute for the workers can be 300km, they stay in a motel for a week and then make their way back home. I imagined the character, ‘Jesse’ or whoever, resenting the drive and the imposition of unavoidable reflections of the land which he’d feel under a tyre. But, ‘Paloona’ sometimes for me is more an ode to his lover. Other times it’s simply an escape, it’s just another little cog in the ‘machine’ of The Great Tasmanian Escape after all.
Paloona, the place, becomes a palimpsest for a darker history and for a sense of deep yearning. This is an achingly beautiful track, fresh and vital and suffuse with a melancholia. The accompanying video created by Ursula Woods with assistance from Jacob Collings captures the unique southern light – shot across the forests and lakes of inland Tasmania.
Woods says of the inspiration for the video:
When I first listened to Paloona, I just wanted to run and move! The song is full of energy. The musical build up completely sweeps me up with it and I feel a connection to the emotion and expansive nature of the song. The lyrics too, are so beautiful and drive that feeling of going to a special place. We had a small window of time to shoot the video and so we took a chance on a sunny day to get out and capture some of that expansive, rolling, break-free feeling to go with the music. I had scouted the location and although it was not Paloona, some of the industrial and forest features of the landscape made me think of Paloona. Chris personifies the Tassie landscape in this video. His performance shows a real connection to place and how certain places can evoke certain feelings including that feeling that we sometimes just need to get away and be our own in nature.
The result is something quite mesmerising and evocative that resonates powerfully with the song:
The album then swings back to the personal – ‘Jesse’ – the protagonist in this great escape returning from service in the Gulf War. The dramatic horn-burnished refrain is dynamic and thrilling and the story being told so tangible and real, reflecting as it does the effects of post traumatic stress syndrome familiar to veterans and their family and friends, compounded by loss and grief of loved ones:
I lost my mate I lost my mate Now you're about to lose me
The theme of escape filters through ‘Fingal Tiers (Final Tears)’ – one more sip and I’m out of here. The funereal horns reflect a darker story:
You loved me true, you loved me true My wings grew strong, like the bird I flew At my funeral your words rang true I love you brother, I still miss you
Final track ‘Launceston (The Sun Barely Hit Your Side of Town)’ – sung by Rowie Wise and thereby shifting the story to another perspective – is an uplifting ethereal song filled with an element of sunshine and redemption with its anthemic chores and lilting pace. At heart, however, there remains a theme of escape and loss – the sun barely hit your side of town so I don’t blame that you got out – creating a poignant tension. An outro and Coleman’s distant voice ends the album with an air of grace and mystery.
‘The Great Tasmanian Escape’ is quite simply a masterpiece. With touches of folk and americana, it is a gripping narrative tale borne on the shoulders of the most impeccable instrumentation. Coleman’s poetry is moving and heart breaking, filled with intimate details and emotions and bursting with colour and movement. With his lyrical sonic landscapes, Coleman has captured the heart and soul of Tasmania reflecting all of the colours in the pallete – the dark and grim shades of history and personal grief as well as the bright rays of resilience, defiance and love.
‘The Great Tasmanian Escape’ is out now through Oscar Teahouse Records and available to stream and download though all the usual sites and the link below:
Christopher Coleman and the Great Escape includes a who’s who of Tasmanian resident musicians including Glenn Richards (Augie March), the late and much lamented Mike Noga (The Drones), Stu Hollingsworth (EWAH and the Vision of Paradise) and Kelly Ottaway (The Stitch). The album is produced by Glenn Richards. The current live line up is Sorin Vanzino (drums) from local band The Tinderboxers, with EWAH and the Vision of Paradise bass player Stu Hollingsworth and musical prodigy, award winning Kelly Ottaway on keys. Normally Glenn Richards from Augie March plays guitar (he produced the album and did the arrangements for the horns) but his replacement is Jethro Pickett (an award winning folk/country/americana artist in his own right).
‘The Great Tasmanian Escape’ is being launched on Sunday, 27 March at the Hanging Gardens in Hobart with support from Claire Anne Taylor – details and tickets here.
Make sure you go and see them play – they are remarkable live. You can read my review of the recent performance by the band here.