For the last decade and a half Phil Judd’s musical voice has been sneaking out into the world via a handful of idiosyncratic solo releases – you know that voice, instantly. And vocally there’s still every power in it, reminders of all that was always great. There are musical motifs – and the spirit of vaudeville – that still haunt, that Judd still taunts with…a 2019 song from Phil Judd might just sound like it could have been released in 1976.
And the latest – and I think greatest – of his solo releases is Flightless Bird.
Here we can hear little traces of Schnell-Fenster on the opening brace (THIS is THEN and THAT was NOW and Surrounded) as well as the sound of what should have been captured on an official – actual – second album from the Mental Notes-era of Split Enz.
These are pop songs beamed in from an alternate universe (the title track here almost brings to mind Late Last Night’s musical changes) and for a fan of anything Judd has done previously there’s much to delight in here.
The past is very much on his mind, throughout. Lilydale Sation pays tribute to an imaginary band but “the drummer goes la-de-da”, a wee tribute to Swingers stickman Buster Stiggs (it was Buster that came up with the idea for the “la-da-de-da” lyrics of Counting The Beat). Later in the song Judd will talk of a singer that says things that sound clever but mean nothing – he could be talking about almost anyone of course, but there’s so often self-effacing humour in his present-day songs.
As with previous releases such as UniQue – there’s a mix of introspection and BIG – songs that feel ready for stadiums (One Of Those Days) even if their singer isn’t.
And as with previous releases it’s largely a one-man-band operation, self-produced, engineered, recorded – made with love and folly and full indulgence in the home studio, which means that – particularly for this day and age – it’s probably a song or two too many, but the very best of this stands very strong. Certainly his best solo effort. And the most consistent.
The magical sprinklings of dream-pop across Fairy Dust, more Enz/Fenster flashbacks and even more self-effacement/introspection-writ-large on Talking To Myself, more beguiling backing tracks to strange musical reveries with Mono Into Stereo.
If you’ve never been a fan then this is a closed-door situation. There’s no reason to make acquaintance with this – but if you were ever hooked, or even curious, Flightless Bird has everything you could need. And more.
And then, with The Day Before Yesterday, Judd repurposes the mandolin strum and acoustic dance of the earliest Enz to tell a story of the loss of musical friendship between him and Tim Finn. Though not named it’s very clear that he’s singing about the early days of Split Enz, of Split Ends even, the folk troupe that turned songs on their ear, that spun the heads of a then still conservative listening base.
Judd pines for Finn the co-writer, his “brother”. He laments the door being shut, he is calling for a connection – or at the least fondly remembering the pair at their very best. Asking, even, to get back to where they were before “they came unstuck”. Asking to start over.
It’s both affirming and heartbreaking. For anyone caught up in the story it’s a fascinating lament, a soul-stirring meditation.
The more willful experimentation comes out on the closing brace of Wah-Wah and 2KindsOfLonely – Wah-Wah being a silly little homespun ditty based around cataloguing his guitar pedals – but married to a great wee stomper of a riff and groove.
There are two kinds of Judd songs – silly and serious. If Day Before Yesterday is the heart on sleeve type, then Wah-Wah is just a rocking old pisstake. But wait, can those two sorts of songs co-exist in one? Because it’s the closer, 2KindsOfLonely that is the real flash of bottled lightning.
It was very clear across the 1980s and into the 1990s that Judd was listening to Prince and if you need a reminder you’ll hear it hear, it’s like something off Around The World In A Day, and there’s an obvious parallel – the auteur-type, left to own devices. Control freak. Getting freaky but still in control. And so is Judd tongue-in-cheek or heart-on-sleeve as he drawls about the two kinds of lonely that exist, “There’s lonely. And fucking lonely”. Well, can’t it be both…sincere and silly, serious and taking the piss. That’s the psychological play that’s always been at work in Judd’s best lyrics – and here with a screaming guitar solo that’s about as onanistic as can be, his finest solo album comes to a close. It should send you back through the catalogue. And though this is dense and requires several listens to unpack it should remind of the power of one of our greatest musical talents – toiling away, owning his muse while it’s there, wrestling with it, serving up the goods as best he can.