It’s no secret that NZ’s resident pop song-book connoisseur Lawrence Arabia has a penchant for penning earworms at once inspired and unsettling. His 2009 single Apple Pie Bed from the album Chant Darling took out the prestigious APRA Silver Scroll, positioning Mr Arabia (real name James Milne) in the great Kiwi song hall of fame. 2012’s The Sparrow was a sparse, dark affair stripped back to its essentials - stark imagery and unflappable hooks. It earned Milne a Tui (New Zealand Music Award) for Best Male Solo Album in 2013.
Fast forward a few years and Milne is back at the height of his powers with his fourth solo album and his strongest yet - Absolute Truth. The album seeks what it states, as Lawrence Arabia charts an honest journey into his own contemporary struggles - always lined with an unpretentious warmth - aptly visualised in the topographical rendering of Milne’s own face on the LP sleeve.
'The songs were recorded in a reclusive, night-owl bout during dark hours under plastic moulding factory Gyro Plastics in the Hutt Valley. Mike Fabulous (Lord Echo, Fabulous/Arabia) co-produced the whole affair. “The street we recorded on is all heavy industry pretty much”, says Milne. “We weren't really allowed to make noise during work hours, so we'd work from mid afternoon till the early morning, while the suburb was totally deserted.”
The album’s sublime opener ‘A Lake’ is at once personal and abstract; its haunting melody ushered gracefully along by a 60’s groove and four-on-the-floor stomps. The Line Of Best Fit described it as "a confident, assured sound and the overall feeling that he's finally happened upon the sound that works for him… with tracks as strong as this, there's every chance that Lawrence Arabia’s new album will give him the worldwide recognition his music deserves." The song seeks to look beneath the surface of the everyday. “I think the more regular a person's veneer, the deeper and more lurid their perversions”, explains Milne.
A Lake is followed by the swinging groove of Sweet Dissatisfaction; complete with triumphant trumpet lines and oohing backing vocals worthy of a 60s sunshine classic. We then take to The Old Dancefloor, exploring a kaleidoscopic minefield of spookily cinematic chamber reverbs and brushes behind a haunting melody of complicated love. Arabia’s flavour for Kinks-esque songwriting comes to the fore with I Waste My Time, bouncing bassline and descending organs echoing his artful self-deprecation (“my arms are long but the only things they reach are useless"). The sparse, organic sounds of Brain Gym showcase the deft chord shifts and arrangements that Milne is so capable of.
O Heathcote, written on the shores of the Heathcote River near Christchurch’s Port Hills, is an elegant centrepiece exploring dilemmas of the modern era amidst a bed of inventive percussion and a barroom swing. The song gives way to unveil the album’s title in moment expressing life’s genuine absurdity: ”We walk the dog and sadly we consider how everything's been ruined / and moan about the youth while our arbitrary opinions become absolute truth."
Second single ‘Another Century’ is a contemporary love story like only Mr. Arabia can deliver - a shuffling disco beat ushers in soaring strings; the backstory looms large with contemporary anxiety (“living through disaster”) before zooming into sweetly proposing a new era for lovers alone (“...these sun-kissed loves / so doomed and so fragile”). On The Palest of Them All Mr. Arabia celebrates the lifestyles of young goths in charming fashion, before bringing it back home on Mask of Maturity with the stunningly confessional first line “You know I'm a giant adolescent”. With rolling drums, epic string arrangements and 50s dancefloor guitar, Milne’s imagery extends to explore an oh-so New Zealand site of domestic conflict (“in the garden you scream from the hydrangeas”).
Album closer What Became of that Angry Young Man sees Milne’s poetic narrative powers at their best - telling the blackly comic tale of drunken and disorderly, youthful irreverence in the K Road locality (“Sleeping on the rear deck by the recycling / You’d leave a beautiful corpse / But you don’t care, you want the night to take you”). A searing guitar line and booming timpani round out the tale as Milne muses to himself on repeat, “What Became of that Angry Young Man?”
One of Milne’s most baldly upfront songs on his most mature and honest album yet, one could suppose That Angry Young Man might have grown up - but the wisdom of hindsight only makes his story all the more compelling.