Buried deep down toward the end of Phil Judd’s new album are three of his finest songs. I say that knowing full well that he is the writing genius behind Late Last Night, Sweet Dreams, Counting The Beat and dozens of other songs. Phil Judd soundtracked a big part of my childhood, and an even bigger part of my adolescence. I was hooked on Schnell-Fenster after graduating up through Split Enz and The Swingers. I stuck around for the solo albums – all of them, sporadically arriving across the last 30 years – and collaborations like Unth!nkables! – I even still search movies from the late 80s and early 90s for Judd’s name in the credits, just in case he was the composer. By following his scent I’ve found some new favourite films – and just yesterday when paying tribute to John Clarke the mere mention of Death in Brunswick had me recalling that it was Judd that composed the score for that whimsical, wonderful movie.
So, there you go. My credentials. I arrive at every new Phil Judd album with the baggage of expectation. I loved his last collection, Play it Strange in a way that had me rather emotional.
UniQue is a tougher, weirder prospect. But if you’d listened, done the listening across the solo albums particularly, you’ll spot the Judd you know and love. If, of course, that’s the case.
It’s a possibly frustrating album for many – it’s long and there are some weird songs that stick out at odd angles. This of course is also Judd’s strength. But I’ve given UniQue so much time, felt I had to, because I knew – even on first listen – the connection was there; waiting…
So, the album kicks off in fine, fighting spirit with an ode to nostalgia (Free Love) and the hippie-daze of the 60s, particularly the music. And then, Two Timer, has a touch of Neil Finn/Crowded House to its riff; a clever, quirky tune that reminds of how Schnell-Fenster always sat perfectly as the ‘alternative’ to Crowded House; the two strands of Split Enz’s sound splintering off to filter into House/Fenster respectively, and respectfully.
Songs here like Karma Bomb and Into The Zone wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Judd’s mid-00s solo albums, the slightly jarring crunch of Man In The Attic’s riff breaks things up – it might be too much for some, but it feels like something that might have happened on a third Fenster album.
The pastoral acoustic riff of Papa frames another nostalgic ode, this one a tribute to his father.
It’s mid-way through the album and a weird little segue (Meanwhile) that you could imagine Ed Cake writing (I’ve often seen him as some sort of spiritual son of Judd’s) is a bit of curious filler; could it have come from the easy-listening records Judd’s parents might have inflicted on him? Who knows what’s really happening here. It’s both skippable and a bit of light, trite fun. It excerpts well, but in the middle of a long album it can be patience-testing.
This is where the problem with the album is identified – it could have done with a producer; an outside hand to say ‘yes’ and then just as often ‘no’ to the wild, woolly ideas. That said, I love Judd’s approach to making his music; it’s for him first and foremost, and his ideas spring from all places. And the best of his work exists because of the worst of his work too…
Here’s the proof that you need to stick with this album – just as you might be tiring the real gems are unearthed. The beautiful strings and acoustic guitar of Buggerlugs (original Enzer Miles Golding makes some beautiful, warm, wise contributions to an album that is almost entirely a ‘solo’ album otherwise).
The strange and beautiful melodies that Judd can coax, well that’s what keeps me listening I think. The idea that he is going to phrase something, state it, play it, shape it in a way no one else would. So the affecting Ah-Oh is some throwback to pastoral folk, but it’s a proud lyric, a note to self to continue on perhaps; it’s most certainly one of Judd’s best songs.
Gutless Wonder, his ode to Donald Trump, is also startling, transcending its source material, or the notion of politics dating a song. It’s Judd at his best.
Maa-Ya-Ya is back to the crunching, almost metal riffing. Again it might jar for some but I kinda dig it. The song is nothing special but the performance is cool.
Memory Lane is one of the other really great songs here – really, truly inspiring, brilliant. It starts off in a low-key way, again it feels traceable to Judd’s mid-00s albums or Fenster but its beguiling chorus melody takes us back to the tangle of early Enz and those surprise moments; something no one else could write.
We end – because it’s Judd following his almost-every whim and way – with a recipe for Crème Brulee. No really. Recited, sung/spoke, over another metal-edged riff. It’s funny, as he sings his worries around the mixture maybe being too runny. That’s metaphor for the album in a way. But there’s magic here – even in a song called Crème Brulee that is actually just a Brulee recipe. When he finishes the album with the news that there’s really nothing better than a perfect Brulee, enough to keep you going, enough to make you enjoy the day, well, I believe him.
And I believe, truly, that UniQue’s one flaw might be that people don’t give it enough time to sink in. I’ve lived with this album on near-repeat across six months. I’ve found a way in. Great chunks of it feel like home to me. That won’t be the case for everyone. But then, Phil Judd has never been at this to make a song or album for everyone.