Album Review: Youth Group – Australian Halloween

Originating from the inner west of Sydney, Youth Group achieved a modicum of global attention for their exquisite cover of Alphaville’s ‘Forever Young’, a song so steeped in rosy-tinted nostalgia and yearning it made even to most hardened cynic tear up. Yes, I did.

But as is often the case, Youth Group are much more than this. Accomplished songwriters and musicians in their own right, Youth Group travel in the same lane as UK bands James and Travis: purveyors of impossibly beautiful indie pop gems.

And typically, some of the most iconic and uniquely Australian bands – think The Go-Betweens, The Triffids, The Birthday Party – wrote their best and most significant iconic material exiled in the cold northern hemisphere. And so it is with Youth Group who have just released the most accomplished and fully-formed album of their career, written mostly in an abandoned laundromat in Huddersfield, UK. And fascinatingly, like those other bands, Youth Group’s songwriter, Toby Martin, has ironically produced songs that have never better captured his home town of Sydney, written from afar in a (sort of) foreign land.

Of course this can – and in Youth Group’s case does – capture those iconic things that are so deeply missed if you are exiled from Sydney – the blooming purple Jacaranda trees, the scent of Frangipani, the late evening storms and the rattling, crowded inner city life spent on verandas, on public transport and in the never ending traffic. But Martin also captures beautifully the reality of a life left behind, the responsibilities of aging, parenthood and the need to escape from a place in order to truly value that which has been left behind.

It’s been ten years since Youth Group last released an album, and you can read explicitly what has happened in the intervening time. The band scattered throughout the world, each forging their own path, and Martin, in his abandoned laundromat in the deep north of England wrote songs that reflect his maturity and growth and the rapidly changing world. Just think what has happened in the past ten years.

Single ‘Cusp’ and opening track captures Martin’s evocative, melancholic voice as he writes about his experience of the Brexit vote and his wry observations as an outsider captured in a nostalgic glow of an old UK:

The vital ingredients of what make Youth Group great are here – the crystalline guitars, driving rhythms, glorious melodies and intelligent observations of life. Martin says of the song:

“‘Cusp’ is really about me moving to England and the Brexit referendum and how claustrophobic it felt around that time. On one hand it was personally exciting to move to a new country and have a fresh start, but there’s also a sarcasm to it, y’know being on the “cusp of something”. Especially at the time of Brexit and how shit that all seemed. This idea of cheering for England and making it great again.

The town I lived in was very mixed politically. I’d always been in this very inner-west Sydney bubble and all of a sudden I was living next to people with very different ideas about the world to me. If I wasn’t living there, I would’ve been mystified by Brexit or how Trump happened, but having lived there I’m like, “Oh I get it. I know what they’re thinking now.” It’s good for you, but also a shock.”

And yet when Martin casts his eyes back to his hometown, the imagery and emotions evinced are transcendent. His poetry perfectly encapsulates his journey and distances travelled and becomes a palimpsest for anyone who approaches (or indeed passes) middle age.

‘Oh James’ is a perfect observation and tribute to the type of person we all have known, born to a difficult life and besieged by inexplicable burdens and ill fortune. It is a sensitive, expressive portrait of the vicissitudes of life and how we can miss another life by pure luck and circumstance.

‘Ol Glenferrie’ rings and chimes with its nostalgic vignettes of BMX bikes, leather jackets, brick wall heat, bare feet, reciting the names of Australian cricketers and the unique and bizarre nature of Australian Halloween rites.

When your eight you think you life is exceptional

On this theme, the deliciously named ‘Bat Piss’ recounts the travails of parenthood – the shock of responsibility and adulthood – “its time to get your feet on the ground and do it right”. Gorgeous.

‘Erskinville Nights’ again wraps the sweet delight of growing up in in a town with an unassailable optimism that catches at the back of our throats, then evaporates into a memory. This song more than other on the album is such a brilliant capture of an antipodean life that expatriots adore and miss from afar, but seen through the ache of a lost love. Martin says:

“Erskineville Nights is about the end of a relationship. But more than that, it is about the end of a home. And more than that it is a song memory about share house living in the inner west of Sydney: terrace verandahs, frangapanni, electrocuted bats, endless drunk conversations, deep friendships”

This is an incredibly beautiful and poised album – it has an inherent grace and melancholy expressed on poetic lyricism and a musicianship that is fittingly melodic and celestial. Australian Halloween was produced by long time collaborator and studio maestro Wayne Connolly (who also did the recent Underground Lovers album). The title is a deft dig at those who decry the Americanisation of Australian culture, brilliant because the album itself explores the things that make life in Australia – and in particular Sydney – so unique.

Youth Group are drummer Danny Allen now based in Miami, Toby Martin teaching in the UK , and Sydney-based guitarist Cameron Emerson-Elliot and bassist Patrick Matthews (formerly from The Vines).

The album is out now through the esteemed Ivy League Records – you can get it here – and Youth Group are touring Australia – you can see them here:

Fri Nov 8 – Northcote Social Club, Melbourne – Tix Here

Fri Nov 15 – The Foundry, Brisbane Tix Here

Sat Nov 16 – The Lansdowne Hotel, Sydney Tix Here

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