Kirin J Callinan – Embracism
On debut album Embracism Kirin J Callinan nails both wide-open-space contemplation and spontaneous brute force , writes DOUG WALLEN.
Who exactly is Kirin J Callinan? Depends who you ask. Or, on this long-time-coming solo debut, which song (or part of a song) you’re hearing. There’s Kirin the ex-Mercy Arms firebrand, Kirin the Jack Ladder sideman, Kirin the successor to Rowland S Howard. There’s Kirin the poser, Kirin the provocateur, Kirin the rock star, Kirin the anti-rock star. There’s the guy who pulled a much-talked-about stunt at this year’s Sugar Mountain festival in Melbourne, and the guy who has inspired members of Grizzly Bear, The Presets and Midnight Juggernauts – not to mention XL Records – to work with him and help release this album.
None of those are necessarily contradictions but, in Callinan’s world, nothing is. He’s made an album that flits between straight-down-the-middle rock and jarring electronics, between motifs of power ballads and performance art, between the strange-bedfellow muses Scott Walker and Bruce Springsteen. It’s, in the man’s own words, sentimental in some places, while caustic and grotesque in others. If that reads like a train wreck, well, it has every right to be. But there’s a reason Callinan has been discussed and dissected so exhaustively: because he reconciles all of the above, including the competing poles of Australian identity. He nails both wide-open-space contemplation and spontaneous brute force.
“What’s so fascinating is how this constant adventurous spirit merges with MOR accessibility.”
But there’s more here than a richly varied identity. There are strong songs delivered with lyrics worth close examination, plus a staggering range of modes guided by The Presets’ Kim Moyes (who produced the record) and a voice that oozes character while jumping from delicate to guttural with many shades in between.
What’s so fascinating is how this constant adventurous spirit merges with MOR accessibility. ‘Victoria M’ is openly chintzy and romantic, but with his brooding presence and vocal tics intact. ‘Chardonnay Sean’ recalls The Triffids’ 1980s Australiana, only punctuated by prickly idiosyncrasies and production risks. ‘Stretch It Out’ is synth-pop through a black mirror, while last year’s single ‘Way II War’ is part pounding industrial holocaust and part Johnny Cash bad-arsery.
It’s funny, though, that as weird as these songs are on their own, they somehow bring each other back down to earth in the context of the album. Even the divisive title track, which uncomfortably tackles rigid archetypes of masculinity head-on, doesn’t seem nearly so confronting (or potentially silly) when nested with the rest of Embracism. In fact, its rallying cry of “Come on embrace” sets the stage for ‘Come On USA’, a celebration of both the inspiring and disillusioning power of America. Divided into two distinct parts and spiked with a racing techno pulse, it’s a contorted oddity that should be more interesting than listenable. But even when Callinan is admitting “I cry when I listen to Springsteen” on the title track, both songs somehow work as the rare art-rock experiment that holds up with revisiting.
Callinan will still turn off a lot of listeners, whether it’s with his melodramatic and abrasive tendencies or with his love of MOR cheese. But stick with this album and you’ll begin to see newfound value in all of those things – including the dad-rock classicism of the ballad ‘Landslide’. If you’ve heard the single ‘Love Delay’, you’ll appreciate how easily he can bridge would-be distant terrains: it’s a twitchy, off-kilter power ballad that mixes both sentimentality and empowering frankness (“We will die alone,” goes the final refrain) while turning all of the sudden into a Springsteen-style runaway anthem in the vein of ‘Born to Run’.
When it’s finished, and before the album-closing head rush of ‘Love Delay’ has quite worn off, it’s still hard to decide exactly who Kirin J Callinan is. Maybe it’s best to define him by his ability to transcend standard limitations of genre and tone. Maybe it’s no accident that the album’s opening line goes as follows: “I covered myself in grease to slip away unnoticed.” Yes, slippery he is certainly is. But it’s impossible to imagine him – or this album – passing anyone unnoticed.