Wil Wagner and company are doing okay. It’s a relative term, of course; their version of equilibrium might be past the tipping point of saner men, but consider that they’ve managed to rally a troop of diligent fans, many homegrown and more from the other halves of the globe – it’s likely an over-fulfilment of any success envisioned underneath Melbourne skies. Now they have the unique (at least in the grand scheme of things) privilege of being able to visit various locations around the world, alternate-dimension local watering holes where strangers know not only their names but their struggles. Throw Me In The River is the fruit of their labour, laden with uncertain ecstasy and the compromises of un-fucked-with dreams.
It was against all odds that they flew their coop, if a little all-thumbs. The following they’ve accrued stems from the bite of barefaced authenticity, a refusal to sugar-coat any of their skeletally candid recollections – ordinarily as a band gets bigger, so does the disconnect between them and their fans, and it should be especially true of Wagner’s home-grown maladies earning him bar-room billings in major cities and thousands of devotees even further afield. But, somehow, this still feels like the Smith Street Band’s realest record. Through all the mire and the shitstorm, I find myself living vicariously through the poetic genuineness of these situations – to share the emotional dexterity and the adrenaline of heated skirmishes, even as an observer, amps up my own dealings with what it is to be human. These songs strike a chord in a sense that’s much more earnest and personal than “oh my god, it’s like this song was written just for me.”
Even better, then, that Wagner is so visibly aware of all the tropes and shortcomings associated with visceral, soul-bearing music. He’s built an effigy of himself to shout at, scratch up and belittle, if only so that he can then practice nurturing it in the same way he craves. “I speak in the tired clichés of a strip club DJ” he admits on ‘The Arrogance Of The Drunk Pedestrian‘, knowing which phrases and put-ons are most likely to amass a heaving audience, capturing attentions with a higher amount of fucks-per-square-inch than Casino. It’s inevitable that as Throw Me In The River trickles from source to mouth, sweaty gig-goers will begin tearing their throats shouting “So why don’t you FUCK OFF!” back at Wil. It’s the sort of exclamation that we all have a mutual affinity for, but nestled among the smithed lyricism it doesn’t feel like pandering. We’ve been let in on the act.
It almost seems necessary on his part, too. Obsessive as music fans can get, we often magnify the worth of our music library deities, and much of the album feels like a reminder that Wagner is the same as the rest of us – a shitty, undependable human wading through the trial and error of life – and he’s turning us, the waddling wind-up toys, around so that we don’t topple off the edge of the table. “I’m just trying to pay an insurmountable debt, just trying to forget about my inevitable death,” he begins ‘Surrey Dive‘, reducing his troubles to two of humanity’s biggest bugbears with the moxie of a fearless youngster – “Chris threw up in the diner, and I was sick in the snow.” The agile bounce of the accompanying riff reeks of fingers-in-ears denial, sprightly and try-hard, a skinny-dipper who won’t be dissuaded from making the plunge.
But, vitally, this is a far cry from reckless abandon. For every doe-eyed witticism there’s a sobering, shivering disclosure, as the pitfalls of relentless travelling reveal themselves like scorned children from behind a door frame. In ‘Surrender‘, he reasons that “we should be climbing chain link fences, with backpacks, and nowhere to go”, but the allure of intrepid exploration has faded by the time he belts “alcohol and time differences, they never got along” in ‘Get High, See No One‘. It’s not the only changing of his mind either; more obliquely, a quivering yell imparts “when I said I wanted to die, I meant it” – later, and still with a quiver, he jams his foot in the door to iterate that “leaving isn’t what I came here for.”
More than just an insane catalogue of quotables, Throw Me In The River brandishes remarkable, revitalised musicianship. These excerpts of pleasant, rhythmic prose are naught but waifs and strays without the ecosystem of the instrumentals to house them – all of the instruments share Wagner’s personality, laughing when he laughs, shattering when he buckles. Conversely, some of the song structures seem to have been designed by the course of nature, dips and deluges taking precedence over template anthems. ‘Calgary Girls‘ ends up dropping below the waterline, muffling the noise of unanswered affection into a nearly-spoken soliloquy: “If you see me again holding up some dive bar’s end, with a whiskey sat far too naturally between my legs, will you saunter over smokily and tell me about your family, and I’ll tell you you were right when you said I’d end up lonely.” And then it surges like over-saturated earth, no longer able to take the strain of Wagner’s strife. The conflicts are quantified and made tangible, pressed like flowers into the stained pages of a worn diary, and that’s perfect – because as we’re told at either end of Throw Me In The River, regardless of life’s trials, all Wil Wagner ever needed was something he could hold in his hands – and here it is.