Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
There’s something compelling about Missy Higgins that goes beyond her specific talent, or the music she produces. She projects an honesty and innocence that’s almost startling. It draws the listener in – makes you want to connect, to protect, to nod your head in agreement.
Her phenomenal success belies the simple pop she produced on The Sound of White. And even when you’ve heard it one hundred times before, you can’t help cocking your ear whenever “Scar” comes on the radio, as it invariably does. On a Clear Night is a little different. Higgins, who admitted to doing more rocky guitar oriented songs because she didn’t have instant access to her piano on the road, seems to take more chances on this CD. Her confidence up from the multi-ARIA wins, Higgins works hard on her voice – taking it higher, lower, and wider than she did on On a Clear Night.
The CD still comes across as fairly simple and direct – despite the superb engineering/production by Mitchell Froom that gives it a tight, clean, accessible sound. The music is layered subtly, but you still get the sense, even with celebrity extras like Matt Chamberlin on drums and Neil Finn on guitar and vocals, that this is 100% Higgins – a one on one session between listener and singer/songwriter.
A lot of the songs are about heartbreak. A few are about self-actualisation. But the CD is hard to categorise. There’s plenty of country influence and a hefty dose of lighthearted, catchy pop, but there’s also smoky bluesy music like the seductive “Secret”, the dirt music bluegrass twang of “Going North”, or the rich piano chanteuse ballad “Where I Stood”. Finn’s voice provides a distinctive vocal layer on “Going North” (a song that could easily fit on a Paul Kelly CD), but he never dominates. On “Peachy”, Finn’s tight electric guitar work is a standout, adding grunt and style, but once again, he allows Higgins to stay in the foreground.
Higgins does torch well, and her voice has an excellent, slightly gritty range that invites the listener in on the softer songs, but where she really stands out is the funky hard driving songs that will certainly take over the radio stations around Australia, and possibly around the world. “Peachy” is clearly an instant hit. Matt Chamberlain’s (who has worked with Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Morissey, Stevie Nicks, Peter Gabriel, Elton John, to name just a few) drums give the song a great danceable rhythm and set a heady pace from the first note.
On On a Clear Night, Higgins manages to toe the perfect line between playful, heartfelt, and above all, intimate, even when she’s getting down. The repetition of lines (“it’s not my fault; it can’t be my fault”), slightly off rhymes (“I follow complications like a bloodhound/So pick me up, twist me round, and throw me all the way back down”) and the twist of Higgins’ strong accent and that unusual lilt at the end of her lines, makes On a Clear Night an original offering. The blend of innocent and playful; warm and cool; and youthful but prescient, comes together in a way that is sure to break through the US barrier and turn an already rising star into a major one. I’d love to see Higgins continue to take risks and do innovative things with her voice, piano and guitar that move beyond the comfort zone of countrified pop. She’s clearly up to it.
The CD I reviewed was a special release concert edition which came with a DVD showing The making of On a Clear Night, and videos for “Steer”, “Where I Stood”, and “Peachy”.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup.