Play It Strange
Here’s a brand new album by Phil Judd. I already previewed this album – I was emotional on first listen. I’d heard about the making of this album, directly from the album’s creator, when it was still very much myth. Now it’s here. It exists. And you could bash your head against a wall wondering why people might dismiss this without hearing it – for it’s one of the best albums of the year. Special, for fans. Obviously. For the mere fact that it exists. But that innate skill Judd has – of tunnelling straight for the heart of a great, quirky pop tune, but always with an artist’s eye – means that Play It Strange isn’t just dependably good. It should leave you awe-struck when you consider not just the trials and tribulations of this musician (particularly across the last decade) but also the simple fact that it’s been a long time between drinks. It’s almost hard to fathom when hearing this – it feels like an album from a songwriter that just steps up to knock it out of the park annually. There’s something almost Elvis Costello-like about the surefootedness of every single song on this album.
Opener, Renovators Dream, does a better job of (perhaps perversely) sounding like the post-Judd Split Enz than the post-Judd Split Enz ever did. And then Sense of Humour returns us to the sound of Judd’s last solo album (but with added fury).
Imaginary Lover reminds of that strange majesty from not just the Judd years of Split Enz but also some of his Schnell-Fenster work. As does Love Crusade. What’s constantly fascinating and remarkable about this album is that for someone so – allegedly – out of touch with what modern music sounds like and requires Judd is right there with a hook, with charm, without smarm. These are honest, sincere, crafted songs. These are all lovely little masterpieces. It’s pop perfection from one of the ultimate outsiders.
Now, if anything, he’s been banished. And that’s where an appreciation of this album starts to seem like a bittersweet idea; sure it’s a special feeling to have and hold close music that only you – and a select group – covet and hold close. But you also want the artist to be appreciated. To earn. You want people to learn about this magic. And it’s hard to reconcile that this album – so full of ideas as to almost be bursting – just won’t actually break through. That’s tough. And I’m only the guy writing about it, not the guy who wrote it. And played his heart out here.
The title track is one of several songs that has been floating around in Judd’s head for the best part of 40 years – an early Split Enz demo that’s been reworked, pinned down for now.
That this song could swirl in his head for so long and then arrive in this form – perfect, what could be a career-making/defining moment for so many other people – is hard to understand. It’s a goose-bumps song. Less a piece of music than art hanging without a frame, floating, moving, here for this instance at least.
You’d like to imagine a world where Judd is celebrated for being one of the most important musicians and writers this country has helped create (and yet never truly supported). And you do get to imagine that when listening to this – Judd’s always built wonderful imaginary worlds with(in) music. So it’s somehow sad and heartening listening to this album. The sadness arriving with the realisation that the world you are hearing in this music – and the home you audience you’re sure this music deserves – is only, in the end, imaginary.
You want it to do well. And of course it does do well, in that it does so well when it plays. It’s good, it’s great. But is that enough? And no amount of persuading will ever lift this up to the audience you’re sure it deserves. It’ll always just be there for a small crowd to discover.
Well, Phil Judd’s made close to his masterpiece right here. Certainly the very best album he could have made at this stage in whatever is left of his career. And far better than I expected, than maybe even he expected. It’s joyous and uplifting and filled with all those great pop-hits-for-the-alternative-universe that he’s always known how to make (and you’re sure that only he could ever make them that way).
Still and always playing it strange.