12 June, 2020
For some time now, the denigration and vilification of suburbia and suburban living has felt passé, not to mention elitist and pretentious. Famous artefacts of popular culture purporting to explore suburbia’s dark underbelly, or lampoon its shallowness—such as the film American Beauty (1999), the television drama Weeds (2005-2012), and even Kath & Kim (2002-2007)—seem dated, reductive and monotone.
While few people would argue that suburbia is any sort of paradise, it is nevertheless here that life takes place. And, as the suburbs become more demographically diverse and multicultural, dare it be said these places are worth poeticising and romanticising. Rather than suffer from so-called ‘placelessness’, the suburbs may also give rise to a strong and emotionally-grounded sense of belonging among its denizens. Several Australian artists have understood this over the years: Howard Arkley, for instance, but also contemporary practitioners, such as the photographer Warren Kirk and painter Robyn Sweaney. In music, Toby Martin’s 2017 album Songs from Northam Avenue was an elegant tribute to the community of Bankstown in Sydney. A recent edition of Cordite also explored the changing artistic treatment and symbolism of suburbia, including its potential to challenge settler narratives through its inchoate diversity.
And are some Australian suburbs not imbued with their own sort of magic?1 The meeting of urban architecture and civil infrastructure with nature and wilderness can often be a source of peculiar charm. From where I currently sit, writing in our suburban home, I can look out the window and observe the garish glare of a streetlight as dusk begins to fall, around which fly cockatoos of white and black. Our house is on a bush block that sits between two avenues, and at the end of both of them is National Park. Lying in bed at night, I can clearly hear the highway and the trains, as well as the hoots of owls. There is a strange electric beauty in this duality.2
It is in this quiet, contemplative, oneiric space between nature and society that Andrew Tuttle’s Alexandra (2020) dwells. The musician’s fourth album is a playful but tender exploration of the suburbs in which he grew up: Alexandra Hills to the southeast of Brisbane (the traditional owners are the Quandamooka Nation). This neighbourhood is made up of residential streets, conservation areas, shopping precincts and the odd hotel. Alexandra features nine tracks, all instrumentals, with Tuttle performing on either acoustic guitar or banjo, augmented by occasional synthesiser accompaniment and other instruments (such as piano, saxophone and pedal steel).
On several pieces, Tuttle’s gentle playing sits alongside field recordings, presumably made at various Alexandra Hills locations: the hubbub of a shopping centre, the tweeting of birds, the rushing of water. It is in these sections, where music mixes with found sounds—nature with culture, melody with ambience—that Alexandra arrives at moments of particular exquisiteness.
Throughout the album, there is a mood of very early morning, in both the melodies and field recordings. Tuttle evokes dawn and the beginnings of the day’s sonic happenings, from daybreak animal chirping to the first hum of commuter traffic. In this way, his songs have an attractive sense of aubade to them. The first track’s title, ‘Sun at 5 in 4161’, which references the Alexandra Hills postcode, bears this out.
From this opener, the listener is taken on a tour of Alexandra Hills, with each song title addressing a particular location, including ‘Scribbly Gums Park’, ‘Burwood Heights Convenience’, ‘Vienna Intersection’ and ‘Platypus Corridor.’ Each piece manages the singular trick of expressing the sleepiness of this ostensibly unremarkable corner of Queensland, and, at the same time, uncovers its vibrant life and character. Musically, Tuttle’s compositions are not especially complex. Several songs are based around simple melodic phrases, such as the minimalist banjo riff of ‘Hilliard Creek, Finucane Road’, while others, such as ‘Scribbly Gums Park’, are lush collages of sound that explore drone and ambience with a mixture of instrumentation. It’s on this track—and also ‘Tallowwood View’—that Tuttle comes closest to the work of Brisbane sound artist Lawrence English, who mastered Alexandra, and whose Room40 label has released the album.3 The tone throughout Alexandra is wistful, as if lost in reverie. It is also an expression of curiosity; it feels that during this journey through Alexandra Hills we are constantly being waylaid, or diverted by innocuous, but interesting, things to see or hear. Eventually, we arrive at ‘Cambridge Drive Shopping Centre’, the centrepiece of the album and a magnificent, if understated, encapsulation of Tuttle’s aesthetic.
This is the most fully realised expression of his unique ability to construct enigma and intrigue by combining close listening to the external world (captured in field recordings) with the precision and deftness of his song writing:
The song begins with the echoey hum of chatter in the shopping mall, before Tuttle chimes in with one of his signature short refrains on guitar (almost all of these sharp repeated melodies sound like the chirrups of bird call). The track then drifts in and out of these elements with an organ drone underneath, until an abrupt and loud three-note descent on guitar jars the work into focus—the jolt is akin to leaving the air-conditioned comfort of the shopping centre and stepping into the humid cauldron that is a summer day in south-east Queensland. ‘Cambridge Drive Shopping Centre’ is a compelling portrait of environment and neighbourhood, and a mesmerising work of art.
I first came across Andrew Tuttle in December 2016, when he was the support act for the American singer-songwriter Cass McCombs at a show at The Zoo. Armed with a laptop and his acoustic guitar, it was an undemonstrative solo performance that demanded more engagement and concentration from attendees than was perhaps possible in that setting—a night where people were there to see McCombs’s noisy full band.
This cinematic and serene album, an important release for the Australian independent music community, feels like the optimal expression of Tuttle’s art and his most satisfying work to date. Alexandra is a profound lesson in the rewards that come from paying passionate close attention to locality and our immediate surroundings. Furthermore, Tuttle has successfully expanded the reflections on his personal history to explore the universal suburban experience—in all its colours, and its mystery.
- Donald Horne, in The Lucky Country (1964), famously wrote that Australia ‘may have been the first suburban nation.’
- With apologies to the late music journalist Ian MacDonald and his famous essay about Nick Drake, ‘Exiled From Heaven: The Unheard Message of Nick Drake’, published in The People’s Music (2003), in which he writes, ‘…after the writing the previous paragraph, I went downstairs to make a cup of tea and, when I paused to look out of the window, the utilitarian landscape of interlocking lanes and fields and neatly pruned woodland which I normally see was suddenly deep, suddenly enveloping. I’m living in the country, I realised, as if briefly coming awake. And it’s magical.’ (Italics in original)
- In a recent interview with the author, Lawrence English said, ‘Andrew Tuttle has been crafting his music for a couple of decades now. I have had the pleasure to know him during this time and there’s little question that Alexandra is his most articulate and considered recording. He has really stepped up and I would argue stepped out to occupy a space that sits right at the fringes of several forms. This could potentiality result in work that is blurry at the edges, but Andrew has crafted something that is utterly focused and personal. His combination of electronics and acoustics is reflective of the path he has traveled to this point in time and I am endlessly impressed by how refined his work is. In the same breath though he maintains a very “lived-in” sense, which I think speaks to the skill and consideration with which he approaches his work.’