My heart sank when Tim Minchin began saying he felt “misdiagnosed” as a comedian and threatening to release a “mature” pop album. I’m a huge fan of the 45-year-old Australian’s gleefully caustic comedy songs, which forensically nailed the “vacuous crap” of everything from ancient religion to modern weaknesses for alternative medicine and Hollywood romance. At shows, after gushing about his wife, Sarah, he used to lean into his piano, raise a mischievous eyebrow and croon: “Our love is one in a million, you couldn't buy it at any price/ But of the nine point nine nine nine/ Hundred thousand other possible loves/ Statistically some of them would be equally nice…”
I feared West End triumph (with children’s musical Matilda) followed by four, long irony-abrading years in Los Angeles might have sucked all the spit and wit out of him. “Have we learned nothing from The Parable of Ben Elton?” I moaned to a friend while I downloaded the new album and braced myself to hear him trade the sweary smartarsery of his kohl-rimmed outsider days for the dreary sincerity of the successful and the “blessed”.
The truth is, it does take a little time to adjust. The production is, at times, unsubtly theatrical, so you can feel every emotional string being tugged. In his comic songs, Minchin would often feign intense earnestness, milking the tension with kohl-accentuated gurning, before puncturing the mood with a sudden daft/expletive laden line or two. A classic example is his old song “Confessions”, where the worthy feminism of the verse is punctured by a giddily self-skewering chorus of “F*** I love boobs, though”.
But here the earnestness is… well, in earnest. This is made plain on opening track, “Summer Romance”. The autumnal ode to living in the moment begins with a bittersweet solo piano onto which Minchin continually loads more emotional freight: big drums, guitars and swirling strings. There are even bells ringing as Minchin throws the full, reverbed-up weight of his nasal vocals into the repeated declaration: “I love you, I love you, you’re beautiful!” From a lyricist of Minchin’s original gifts, the blunt-force simplicity feels a bit brain-bludgeoning.
But it’s the least witty song on an album that soon finds space for Minchin’s sharp-tongued raconteuring and knack for catchy-sprawling melodies. There are some gorgeous love songs, including the title track “Apart Together”. It begins with Minchin relaying the story of a couple who froze together in their mobile home. “They'd been there a month they say/ Seemed to be no decay/ I guess the upside of freezing to death/ Is that you tend to stay that way/ Locked in each other's arms/ Eyes closed and faces calm/ They may have lain there 'til spring/ If it weren't for the ping of their smoke alarm.”
It’s crisply observed and tenderly considered. There’s tragedy, mundanity (the lovers were found when a neighbour dropped by with batteries for the smoke alarm) and stark corporeal reality (he’s a surgeon’s son after all) topped with yearning romance. The singer vows to “handle the entropy/ If you promise to stay with me/ I give you my heart knowing things fall apart/ Praying you will decay with me.”
Listeners will spend much of the album wondering how it feels to be Sarah: subject of both the big love songs and also of the two tracks about the occasions on which Minchin was tempted to cheat on her. The couple have been together since they were 17 and “wearing white jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts”. The former social worker and now full-time mother to their two children does all the family admin while her late-blooming celebrity husband jets around the world fending off the advances of his fans.
He’s aware that the topic’s a bit humblebraggy and has self-mocking fun comparing the privations of a touring musician to Christ’s 40 days in the desert and Odysseus’ journey home from Troy. But he’s honest about the fact that monogamy is a choice people have to make over and over again, and that “teenager me would be screaming his pants off” at the opportunities he’s passed up.
“The Absence of You” is an account of Minchin’s only infidelity: a jet-lagged, vodka-tasting kiss. The lullsome “I’ll Take Lonely Tonight” makes the relief of not having cheated sound more orgasmic than any one night stand. While frank that walking away from temptation takes “a great act of will”, he returns to his “3.5 star boutique hotel”, raids the minibar and passes out on his phone “with only the wrappers of Pringles and Snickers for which to atone”. The grammar alone is delicious.
Despite the domestic bliss, Minchin has a big breakup to write out of his system. “Leaving LA” details the end of his affair with Hollywood where he spent four years working on an animated film that will never be made. Understandably furious, he dismisses the place as “just some really ugly letters on a pretty ugly hill”. "Airport Piano" sees him laying into the emptiness of American-style consumer culture with an infectious singalong chorus of “Women in SUV Porsches always look miserable”. Closest in attitude to his comic material, “Talked Too Much and Talked Too Long” is a raucously jazzy rant that covers the arc of his career from the early “quaint cabaret” nights in Perth, through his triumph at the Edinburgh festival in 2005, to the retreat from America.
A man singing through his CV ought to be unbearably self-indulgent but the self-deprecation makes it a hoot. It ends with Minchin warning fans he intends to keep performing until he’s getting rickety, which he rhymes with “until all you pricks are sick of me”. He imagines himself in a care home common room, still at the piano knocking out “the same three chords and cliched f***ing runs.”
On the basis of this album, I’d gladly end up in the same nursing home. Sure, it’s sentimental at times, but only about the things that matter. And Minchin’s unswerving commitment to all that good, decent, truthful stuff is irresistible. My sunken, cynical heart had its cockles thoroughly warmed.
Tim Minchin’s debut studio album Apart Together is out now.