Jack Colwell: Swandream review – theatrical, raw songs packed with pain and soaring survival

Bernard Zuel

A friend of mine instinctively reacts to dramatic pop songs – the type of thing with vocal and musical flourishes that feel theatrical; big swings in mood and presentation; emotions throbbing; male voices in lower registers; lyrical landscapes painted in almost lurid detail – with the denunciation that it’s trying too hard, that it is false, that it is, in the ultimate insult, pretentious.

Thus consigned to the bin the likes of Scott Walker and Nick Cave, Kate Bush and Cousteau, Rufus Wainwright and Anna Calvi. So without hesitation I can say she’d hear Sydney artist Jack Colwell’s debut album and label it pretentious. I’m also confident Colwell would say, yes, and? 

Related: Megan Washington, Tkay Maidza, Steve Smyth and more: Australian music for isolated times

Swandream does not shy from the dramatic, but embraces it; doesn’t hide its theatricality and exposed emotions, but revels in them, and fuels itself on the energy of the extremes in these coming-of-wisdom tales. It is prepared to sing “I’ll bleed for what I love” and mean it, and to break up the second half of the record with a quasi-doom/Nine Inch Nails screech-and-run called PTSD, and to go at it with a full metal jacket.

This is an album of flamboyant gestures where every gesture is rooted in something soul-gouging or exultant or defiant. Colwell – and there is no effort to disguise most, if not all, of these characters are him – catalogues the scouring journey of a queer boy, and man, and the swan dream is his.

The album speaks of thoughts of escape from daily fear, and abuse as a punchline to a pack for whom “I’m just a lisp/With flailing wrists”, as he sings on Weak – but it also speaks of understanding how within that pack someone whose sense of self can’t stand the furnace might actually need the victim he assaults: “When we meet again some day/I will take you in my arms/But for now I understand/I am the vessel for your pain.”

But later on, Colwell throws the name-calling back in the faces of those who had called him “just a faggot”, pounding his piano, snapping in the backing vocals, and curling his mouth up to bite back in a manner that’s Tori Amos at her astride-the-stool high.

Shakily at first but then with firming confidence, the album explains the hurt and love and so much more in a family beset by fists and temper and fear, and a boy who says “But I still love you Dad/Even though we made you mad”. As the piano curves around rather than cutting through you, in a quiet voice all the more effective for not being in any way affected, Colwell recalls a mother punched on Christmas Eve, a purple bruise beneath a boy’s jaw, Julie Andrews on the TV, and the knowledge now that “I will not be afraid of you/I have learned to grow past you”.

And, oh yes, it’s a record where a song like Conversion Therapy – beginning with Antony & Marc Almond entwined in black cabaret, and climaxing with Kates Bush and Pierson arching to the moon – practically rolls around in the ludicrous religious mud of “I need the Father’s touch/Or my body rots” and “Do what’s right for me/I hear we all need conversion therapy”, in the mind of someone desperate to be freed even if it means the freedom to be enslaved.

In truth though, Conversion Therapy’s almost amateur dramatics excess (appropriate as it is, and relatively mild compared with the aforementioned NIN-like PTSD) is a bit of an anomaly. Swandream is theatrical, it is right upfront and in your face, but most often it doesn’t shout. 

Producer Sarah Blasko captures the tricky tone of Colwell’s ambitions here: flamboyance and filigree, smudged faces and bent bodies, downtown drag show and uptown play; orchestra and rugged guitar, choir- and lost-boy at the piano. She gives him enough rope to run but not enough to run away so that yes, the unmistakeable influence of Patrick Wolf is felt, but Colwell reminds himself all the way that it is his story and he just doesn’t survive, he soars. Of all the things Blasko has brought to this collaboration, a sense of when to show restraint is the most important.

If it wasn’t already clear, you probably shouldn’t come to Swandream if you find the arms swept high, the head thrown back – the emotional high and shattering crash, the wet eyes and declaration that “I fuck, I fight/To keep you up at night/I shriek, I weep/I piss on every street” – too much. Pretentious even.

But if that doesn’t deter, if it in fact excites, Colwell and Blasko have built a full immersion tale that is theatrical and real.

• Swandream by Jack Colwell is out now, available via Bandcamp