The shelf life of pain: A look back on The Drones’ ‘The Miller’s Daughter’

Back in 2005, Gareth Liddiard and The Drones offered up a selection of wounds disguised an album. The Miller’s Daughter is not streamlined in the manner of their debut, a straight up and down punk rock record called Here Comes The Lies, nor does it resemble the intricately planned sloppiness of their celebrated sophomore release Wait Long By The River And The Bodies Of Your Enemies Will Float By.

Instead, the record blisters and bustles all over the place, tumbling from the snarky brilliance of ‘She Had An Abortion That She Made Me Pay For’ to the slow burn howl of ‘I Believe’ with no rhyme or reason. Tracks seem resentful of sharing the same space with each other, and each song cruelly nudges into the next. Eventually the whole thing comes crashing to a halt, curiously devoid of climax, with the audience left none the wiser.

Part of the record’s abrupt formlessness comes from the manner in which it was written. The Miller’s Daughter is, in at least the most basic respect, a B-sides and rarities album, and tracks on the record were born from writing periods for both of the band’s first two offerings. “When we recorded Here Comes The Lies and Wait Long we did them six months apart and we had a huge pile of songs,” Liddiard told the press at the time. “Those two records were both really long and we had to ditch some of the stuff we were doing in order to keep them reasonably timed.”

That ditched material was strung together ad hoc by the band, jumbled together with all the grace and immediacy of a toddler performing brain surgery. Notably and unusually for The Drones, the album also features two covers, one of John Lennon’s ‘Well Well Well’ and the other of a Spencer P Jones classic named ‘Slammin’ On The Brakes’, with both of those jangly offerings only adding to the overall anarchy of the thing. There’s no through-line to the piece, and the addition of two other authorial voices confuses an already deliberately confused record.

The vocal takes are murky, and the guitar work is all exposed wire and car exhaust. Mistakes are left bare, and tracks like ‘Bird In A Church’ collapse in on themselves rather than neatly rounding off with anything resembling an ending. “Most of the stuff [was] recorded straight up live in the studio,” Liddiard later said. “We didn’t have the money or the patience to correct anything.”

In that respect, The Miller’s Daughter is not like anything else The Drones have written before or since. Even Liddiard’s trademark bruised storytelling style is made hazier and more abstract on the record, and his usually clipped style seems bloated and uneasy. Whereas on Wait Long the narratives are clear and crystalised, with extended images unfolding like Raymond Carver short stories, on The Miller’s Daughter Liddiard’s style is more William S. Burroughs or Brion Gysin. Images pulse and then fade, with blurry shots of apocalypses both private and public coming in and out of the light.

Even ‘She Had An Abortion’, the album’s most didactic song, is barbed with a deliberate smattering of obfuscation. Boasting the most Liddiard-esque line Liddiard has ever written – “and she barely laughed and we often cried” – the song is framed in the voice of a young man whose drug-addled partner demands money for an abortion and then promptly dies, leaving him alone.

But then, just as the track is wrapping up, an addendum tacked onto the track’s end seems to negate the abortion of the song’s title, and throws the listener into uncertain territory. The narrator encounters someone who may or may not be his daughter, a red herring in the form of a sex worker who bars an easy reading of the song and throws all sense of authorial design into disrepute.

The Miller’s Daughter hurt when it was released 11 years ago. It still hurts now.”

But that’s merely one mistruth in an album that boasts many of them. The Miller’s Daughter is one long false confessional – Liddiard spends the record constantly negating and undermining himself, making the hopeful sound dumb and the dark sound divine. Part of the reason for that tone, Liddiard says, comes from the way he was living life at the time. “All I can remember about these sessions is just being tired and drunk and hoarse and broke,” Liddiard said later. “And on top of that [we were] way too loud for the recording studio.”

Indeed, loudness is the other key to the work. Not a second of The Miller’s Daughter is controlled or quiet, and every single line breaks out like a nasty rash across the skin. It’s ugly stuff that tears at the ears and bypasses the brain, slogging instead straight for the guts. In that way, one can see why Liddiard has always argued that it’s the closest the band has ever come to making a true punk record.

“I hate to sound trite, but this is what we think punk sounds like, you know?” Liddiard has said of the album. “Even though it’s a little messy and rushed. Lots of people think we are shit and I hope this makes them think we are even worse after hearing it, ‘cause we are just doing our thing and doing a thorough job of it.”

In the sense that the record is less an open door and more a dead end, Liddiard is right. The Miller’s Daughter is at no great pains to invite its audience in, or to make life easier for them: it is a record that fulfils notions about art acting as a form of civil disobedience, and one that seethes with discontent and disquiet.

Time has done nothing to change that. The Miller’s Daughter hurt when it was released 11 years ago. It still hurts now; more even, a splintered bone each year growing further and further out of joint.

The Drones perform at Melbourne Town Hall on Sunday November 13 with support from My Disco. Tickets on sale now.

The Drones also perform at Fairgrounds on December 2–3, details here.