Eddie Perfect, one of Australia’s most incisive and subversive songwriters, has mellowed.
After shocking (and delighting) Cabaret Festival audiences a few years ago with cutting songs about fathers buying breast implants for their daughters, and western do-gooders in search of “primitive tribes”, Perfect returns as a solo performer with a more suburban collection of songs – literally.
Songs from the Middle is about the Melbourne beachside suburb of Mentone, where Perfect grew up. He left with some disdain for the middle-class “Riviera” of Australia, located in Port Phillip Bay.
But Perfect, now a family man, returned to reconsider the place where he clearly had a comfortable childhood (no doubt, with hundreds of hours of music lessons).
While I could happily listen to Perfect’s … well … perfect rhymes and lyrical brilliance, and his wonderful ear for melody for hours, I couldn’t help but be a little frustrated. For a performer who has previously been unflinching in peeling layers of skin from mainstream Australian sensibilities, he doesn’t reveal enough – for me – about Mentone and its people and stories.
Perfect is joined on stage by a classical ensemble – strings and woodwinds mostly – from the Australian National Academy of Music, and a couple of ring-ins, including a brilliant violinist from the WA Symphony Orchestra, Shaun Lee-Chen.
The sound balance, from our seats off-centre in the Playhouse, was slightly out of whack – meaning the strings sometimes over-powered Perfect’s lyrics (which are obviously a key to this performance).
Nevertheless, the music is beautiful, clever and brilliantly juxtaposed against songs dealing with primary-school crushes, graffiti artists on the Frankston rail line, a stingy father on an access visit with his children, and a smattering of local history.
The undoubted highlights are two beautifully arranged and performed songs in the middle of the set – one of which deals with the local Bunnings hardware store, and the other with multiple trips to IKEA.
This is where Perfect’s subversive and musical genius shines through. The hardware song gets a laugh, when the lovely string intro turns into opening lines about his sister working at Bunnings, cooking sausages. Then, he weaves a poignant story about the inevitability of change, the closure of the local hardware business, and what happens to its owner. Brilliant.
Likewise, the IKEA song is a lush arrangement, with Perfect weaving stories of lost love with trips to the Swedish furniture mega-store. He’s one of the few songwriters who could pull this off – and it’s surprisingly moving.
There are other highlights, including a lovely instrumental tribute to a girl he hardly knew, but who captured his heart when he was 11.
Perfect’s expressive and reedy tenor voice is perfect for storytelling, and he must be the envy of other songwriters with the seeming ease with which he produces classic melodies that would do the likes of Berlin proud.
Overall, though, I can’t help feeling that Perfect has squibbed it in the storytelling. We learn little of his family or the nitty-gritty of his suburban childhood and why it repelled him, and then drew him back to reconsider the people and place of Mentone.
This is a familiar story among Australian artists – the intense pull to escape suburban chains, and the coming to terms with childhood. Knowing Perfect’s excoriating wit and lyrical bravery, I wanted more – more insights, more of that brutal honesty, and a deeper understanding of this typically Australian suburb and the gulf between those who find a sense of belonging there, and those who yearn to escape.
Musically, though, it’s an unqualified success.
Eddie Perfect will perform Songs From the Middle tomorrow (Saturday, June 20) at 1.30pm and 8.30pm at the Dunstan Playhouse.
More Adelaide Cabaret Festival stories and reviews here.
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