Guitar rock as a topic of national interest in Australia announced it would disappear in a press conference 10 years ago. The Brisbane band Powderfinger, dressed in suit jackets and t-shirts, crowded a group of journalists into Sydney's Annandale hotel for mild-mannered vocalist Bernard Fanning to read out their PR-prepared statement on disbanding. Fanning rarely looked up from the page, occasionally stumbling over his words, as he declared the band had "said all that we want to say as a musical group". He might as well have also been awkwardly eulogising guitar rock, or at least its relevance, in Australian cultural life – when again would a national press conference be called for the breakup of a band?
But ten years and a global pandemic later, we have a new Powderfinger album. The band's renewed activity began with the "One Night Only" livestream in May – a performance of some of their greatest hits, recorded with each member in isolation. It tugged at the heartstrings of an Australia under lockdown by embodying the comfortable nostalgia for yesterday that many sought; a punchy dose of the "good ol' days". That coincided with the 20th anniversary of Odyssey Number Five – their commercial peak – and a populist demand for them to reunite for the AFL Grand Final; an offer they declined.
Their new album, Unreleased, is an old album whittled down from 50 unreleased tracks spanning the Internationalist era to Golden Rule (1998-2010) – found while sifting through the archives to make the anniversary edition of Odyssey. It's disappointing then to only receive 10 of those on the final release, carefully remixed by the band's longtime producer Nick DiDia. It accords with the same careful, commercial attitude the band had from 2000 onwards; never too lengthy, weird or political.
Indeed, none of the songs on Unreleased seem to have been cut for any other reason than quality control. DiDia even brokered the grungier Internationalist-era cuts with the band's latter day sheen, turning them uniformly into Channel Nine sports coverage transition music contenders. The production is clean to a fault, but it at least doesn't lessen Fanning's knack for anthemic whine.
The biggest moment of how-did-that-not-get-put-on-the-album is lead single "Day By Day", a gospel-licked cut from the Vulture Street sessions – its attitude, and gloriously inconsequential lyrics ("I wanna love you day by day…'cause tomorrow may never come") high off the heady success the band lived in the early '00s. That same era also births one of Unreleased's few oddballs: "Lou Doimand" – belonging to the inexplicable series of songs with "oi" sandwiched into the middle of the title, released throughout the band's career, including "Thrilloilogy", "Oipic", and "Capoicity".
Unfortunately, a good chunk of the album bleeds modern rock radio cheese. The chorus of "Happy" predates Pharell's hit of the same name, but has the same sentiment delivered with a shit-eating grin: "I'm happy (Hey Hey Hey)/ To see you happy (Hey Hey Hey)/So keep on clappin' (Hey Hey Hey)". The ballads in particular lack the unique pathos that nation-uniting hits like "These Days" carried – songs like "Say It So I Know" paint achingly ordinary tales of break ups, without a semblance of universality.
The desire to keep this collection clean and trim is its major weakness. The beauty of a B-side album for a popular band should be its ability to spotlight the material too rough to fit the mainstream narrative of what their music is. One might have hoped to see more of the political material that Powderfinger always flirted with, yet were too cautious to release in their commercial heyday for fear of disturbing their broad and apolitical fanbase. But nonesuch missives can be found on Unreleased.
Maybe it was Powderfinger's involuntary role as the defining guitar rock band in Australia that weighed them down to their breakup. On plodding closer "Wrecking Ball", a song intended for their 2009 career capstone Golden Rule, Fanning spells out exhaustion: "There ain't no way I can keep on trying to be all things to everyone". What does Unreleased then do to Powderfinger's legacy? Mostly, it underlines why they're no longer with us – guitar rock orthodoxy is long dead in Australia, long live everything else.
Listen to Powderfinger's new album, Unreleased, in full here:
This review was written by Josh Martin, a Melbourne-based freelance music and media writer with words in MTV Australia, NME, Junkee, Crikey, etc. Follow him on Twitter @joshuamartjourn.
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