After seven years and three albums, Methyl Ethel abandons heartbreak and delivers his "least personal album to date". Speaking to us via Zoom on a Thursday, brainchild Jake Webb confesses that the title is a bit of a joke and the thought of calling his new album Are You Haunted? .. by Methyl Ethel tickled his fancy. However, that's the extent of the lols on this thought-provoking masterclass in philosophical and unconventional pop.
No one sounds quite like Methyl Ethel, the music is impossible to pinpoint and I’m guessing that’s just how Jake Webb likes it. He is an open, honest and intelligent man and clearly a deep thinker – no surprises there considering his fibreglass-referencing moniker is amongst the best, most thought-provoking and interesting indie-purveyors in the country. He began making music under the guise of this bedroom-recording project in 2014 and has achieved a lot since, both here at home and abroad. Releasing three well-lauded albums, snaring a Hottest 100 peak of #4 (with 2017’s ‘Ubu’), signing label deals with Dot Dosh (Aus) and 4AD (international), recently moving onto Future Classic and achieving the virtually impossible by winning acclaim from both audiences and critics alike.
Webb is at home - somewhere between Perth and Fremantle, “closer to Freo” - and we’re discussing his recently-released fourth album on which he poses the formidable question: Are You Haunted? It’s rhetorical, of course, he already knows that the answer is yes - you are, in fact, haunted.
“I guess everybody is in a way,” he notes. “There are these spirits, memories of our old selves, our younger selves, parents, generations past whose deeds, actions, successes and failures shape us. We all have these ghosts that linger in our present predicaments. Without wanting to become too trippy about it, but when you think of things like climate change, it's something that really unites all of us and our behaviours in a way. There are certain things that we all have responsibility for, and it's a bit loaded because I want to think about it in the broader sense, not specifically. So I like the idea that memory is kind of something that is sort of stuck to you, you know? And that's where the haunting comes in.”
Webb, the poet and polymath, has never steered away from “the trippy” or getting too deep themes of memories that overstay their welcome, nightmares or preoccupations that linger in the psyche have always seeped their way into his music. But Are You Haunted? is his least personal to date, providing a direct philosophical funnel to these hauntings and themes which could easily take a more sombre path if not for his uncanny knack of creating curious, complex and infectious hooks. It is an album haunted by an uncertain future by turns the unchangeable past. With upright piano, glitching sound-samples and sanguine beats at the album’s emotional core, it’s a strange and beguiling journey; perhaps Webb’s weirdest, certainly his funnest, but also his most undeniably pop-leaning and danceable record to date. However the constant thread that has existed for Webb from day one is that the music he makes is entirely to appease himself, anything extra is just a bonus.
“I want to be proud of these records, of my output,” he explains. “Especially because so much time can go into it. And if I were to make it to appease somebody else or for a particular reason, I don't think that I would be able to look back as fondly as I feel like I can. And at the same time, feel like I can learn from things and the whole thing really is like an exploration of all of these things. And I'm lucky because I get to really go down every single path that I'm interested in and try to wrangle it all together and to try and make something that I enjoy listening to. It doesn't work always, but I think this record does bring all those things in and seems to find that harmony.”
It does indeed! Are You Haunted? is a creative triumph for Webb. It’s a place where the wonderfully weird meets the fun. In fact, it’s a group of songs that are as fun as they are serious, simultaneously angular and defiantly direct.
“I feel like that kind of makes so much of it worthwhile to see just how far you can kind of push, let's say, a song that maybe finds its way onto the radio,” he grins. “No disrespect to experimental and avant-garde artists, but sometimes it's really easy to just go all that direction, but I find it can be really hard to get the two and merge them together, or at least serve something up that's palatable that also maybe has something a bit strange going on there. I do feel excited about trying to do this, it's trying to bring all of these sort of esoteric bits of art and classical music and avant-garde things and trying to just jam them in and trying to sort of put them right into that mainstream lane, you know, and see how much of it can be taken on board by the average listener. Maybe what can sort of turn somebody on to something fresh or new. I feel like that makes so much of it worthwhile, to see just how far you can kind of push, let's say, a song that maybe finds its way onto the radio, without going in a way.”
There's a beautiful aspect to this record that feels new, or perhaps ignorance has blocked it before - there is a lot of piano and Webb’s distinct warble is more prominent than ever before. The vocal approach feels different and seemingly more forefront, to the point that we actually need to be address Jake Webb as the vocalist’s vocalist and including him in more of those conversations in that way.
Webb lights up, “Wow! That's so nice of you to say, because that's sort of the idea in my head. That's the image of the record - me sitting at a piano and everything that kind of grows from it is something that's happening in my head in a way. I'm proud of how it all happened this time around. I think vocally, I mean, I just worked on it really. I spent a lot of time actually warming up before I recorded the vocal and just didn't rest on “good enough”. But really, the image of me sitting down at a piano does capture basically the beginning of all of it really.”
The album isn’t short of the upbeat, joyous and giddy moments either, even if the thread of melancholy and anxiety is woven through the syncopated rhythms that somehow still manage to feel uneasy yet danceable.
‘Matters’ is a prime example. It was inspired by Webb’s time spent in Los Angeles on the San Andreas fault line, where the ominous spectre of an imminent earthquake is channelled into a perfect, albeit a little unconventional pop song. Webb’s trademark falsetto is drenched in heady dread.
A similar alchemy is at play in ‘Proof’. Webb says it’s “a song about truth and movies,” again, with an uneasiness in the lyrics that outline heavy heads and awful dreams and “... numbers to clear things up for you.” The numbers being actual proof and what constitutes reality in the post-Trump, post-climate-crisis, post-COVID era, in which science and fiercely-guarded fantasy go head to head in the realm of public discourse. It’s a glittery, funk-unfused polemic against nonsense and is the first Methyl Ethel to feature an additional singer - fellow Western Australian and one-time Methyl Ethel guitarist, Stella Donnelly.
Elsewhere, the piano-led ‘One And Beat’ is like a slice of meta-narrative theatre in which Webb cleverly misleads with “Can’t you see it’s impossible without you”, exploring the relationship between music and audiences with an uplifting hook to die for. This writer’s current highlight, ‘Something To Worry About’ is “a song about convincing my mum that everything is gonna be ok” while ‘Kids on Holiday’ – another piano-driven beauty – laments the impossibly heavy burden on the Thunberg generation and its responsibility to save the world. Sounds heavy, but its effortless melody and through-line of vitality and celebration keep it on the less doomier sides of feeling.
However, clearly the most radio-friendly and favourite of most is ‘Neon Cheap’. It channels post-punk vitalists Talking Heads and Television by way of ELO and redefines the very meaning of “ear worm”. The song harbours a dash of nu-wave, tosses in an Italian folk song sample and is in possession of the most infectious / oddest / most lyrically-captivating chorus since “Why’d you have to go and cut your hair.” Lyrically, it reimagines the midnight, social media doom scroll as 3D observation of human spectacle and the imagined myths that you should even begin to compare yourself to "that girl that's so strong and so confident" or "that boy that eats wrong and stays hungry" or even "that person that cannot be put into a category." What's so good about them anyway?
It's nothing short of genius, really, and Are You Haunted? is arguably Methyl Ethel’s greatest album to date. To an inferior talent, Webb’s progression as a songwriter, producer, musician and vocalist to this point might appear complete, but there’s something about this guy which suggests we will be getting music from him for many years to come. But considering his image of the record is him at a piano, can we expect a theatre tour in his old age in exactly this format?
“No,” he laughs. "I'm pretty opinionated when it comes to the piano, which is an instrument that I love so much, but it's kind of cheating, I reckon. It's just too emotive in a way that it's been done before by people who are far more ... I don't know. It can be done, just listen to Debussy or something if you want to be moved by someone playing piano. But honestly, it comes back to that same thing, I would be more interested in trying to move somebody in a different way. Maybe when I’m old and grey, I'll just stand there in a spotlight for an hour and see if that can move people.”
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