Brain Worms (Ivy League)
THIS BAND, I GOTTA TELL YOU, this band is doing something strange. Strange and so good. All the while creating a whole lot of questions.
When does giving up feel like holding on? Where do you find gut-level existential despair becoming instead a surfacing for air? How do you explain anger fuelling a renewal of trust, or at least the potential of trust?
Romy Vager’s songs on the third album from Melbourne’s RVG arrive first as gut punches, riddled with aches and the kind of lashing out that collects everything along the way, including – oh God, yes – the one doing the lashing out. And then they sneak up on you as sucker punches that surprise by not-hidden agendas of a search for understanding and some kind of acceptance. It happens across the album; sometimes it happens within a song.
The landscape is familiar and yet individual in each case. Things have gone to shit in a relationship, somewhere else a life has ended, delusions or paranoia or drugs are eating through the mind, a victim of abuse can’t shake the abuser even in absentia, generational trauma trickles down like any other inheritance, lockdowns exacerbate separation. It’s everywhere. It hurts.
I mean, the album begins with Vager throwing in the towel to the take-me-to-the-moors sound of plangent guitars and snare: “I think I’m giving up/Enough is enough/You don’t want me/I think I’m giving up.”
Dig a shallow grave and I’ll lay me down? Well, is the alternative better? “Did I work myself/To the bloody bone/Digging for treasures/You already own?/You don’t want me.”
No, really, is the alternative any better? The next song, Midnight Sun, finds two people divided: a blinkered certainty on one side and a kind of dogged patience on the other, to the ragged energy of a guitar band more likely to play a Jersey bar. This may be a cooker, it may be someone merely deluded, it could be mask mandates or the great replacement, but whatever it is the links to reality feel more tenuous the longer the song goes, a prelude, a few songs in advance, of the title track, where the full lunacy has flowered: “I just sound insane when I try to explain/To the lady on the aeroplane/Trying hard to look away.”
In It’s Not Easy, melodically and sonically balancing Blondie and post-Kuepper Saints – a good time to mention the powerfully concise work across the album of guitarist Reuben Bloxham, drummer Marc Nolte and bassist Isabele Wallace – blunt words are being spoken to a perpetual fuckup: “why you gotta be a nightmare?” as if an alternative is viable when she knows otherwise.
And there in Tambourine, drawing from the same quiet drama/gathering romance pool as a Rowland S Howard song, a long-distance lockdown-era funeral feels pointless and too late, viewed “through a tab on Google Chrome”, soundtracked by the things never said when they could have been said, and about as substantial as “a projection of a reflection in my room”.
The isolation should by now be engulfing, even when in Nothing Really Changes – Gothic keyboards in a tense, probing song that feels like a tongue pressed on a sore tooth – isolation seems a better alternative. “No I don’t want to fight, I don’t want to fight/You’re not gonna ruin my night tonight.”
If there was a tally sheet, the cons would be outstripping the pros. And I haven’t even mentioned the song where a dangerous loon – a parent, a boyfriend, a colleague: any or all three? – is leaking vitriol, a visage like “Ivan Milat with a giant snake around his neck”.
But this is where Brain Worms works its sleight of hand, by consistently finding seams of sympathy, lines of understanding and just the sense of caring, that raises the songs from each pit.
That cooker, the one who “used to be a journalist/But now I’m yelling at my therapist”, isn’t being cut loose; that person who “make[s] me so mad I can turn bright blue” because nothing really changes, is being heard; and even the despairing “I wish I had of said I loved you” carries with it the faint comfort in the knowledge that at least it had been experienced.
And just as importantly, the one who had given up at the beginning, who felt worthless but couldn’t let it go, has found a reason and a spine. The album ends with Tropic Of Cancer, a synth ballad that turns away from gloom and declares “No more memories and no more sad songs in my head/The big moon has left”.
Here Vager proffers a rebuilt “tall poppy/torn and frayed”, one who has no interest in insecurity or dependence on those who can’t sustain it or return it. It isn’t triumphal exactly, but in its perseverance and resistance, it’s close enough to it to count as she sings “I know what I’m like/And I know how I get/If you think I’m strange/You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
CONGRATS TO RVG FOR WINNING THE AUSTRALIAN MUSIC PRIZE FOR BRAIN WORMS, OUT NOW VIA IVY LEAGUE RECORDS