Although John McCaffrey (Part Timer, Upward Arrows) will probably be horrified by the end of this review, he’s unlikely to quote David Byrne (“My God, what have I done?”). In a pre-release interview last summer, he clearly expressed disdain for all things religious, proclaiming himself an atheist “vaguely” attracted to Buddhism. Bearing such track titles as “There is no succour” and “I say ‘get used to it”, the album would reflect McCaffrey’s “feeling that any refuge found in religious thought is illusory and the consolations hollow”. And yet … and yet …
From such a setup, one might expect an album of Norwegian death metal, or at the very least, one with a sardonic tone. One would certainly not expect the very un-sardonic sound of a man playing with his toddler, or a light burst of easy laughter. And one would never guess that said album would have been recorded in a church (St. Mary’s, Melbourne) on organ and piano, and delivered with serious melancholy, without a whiff of self-indulgence.
So what’s going on here, really? If religion is only important to McCaffrey in a bemused sense, then why spend so much time talking about it, visiting holy sites, and decorating the booklet with images of icons, angels and shrouds? Could his behavior be compared with that of a man who says he can’t stand some woman, but can’t seem to stop talking about her, and eventually ends up marrying her, which everyone else has seen coming for years? And even worse (in McCaffrey’s eyes, at least), could he be doing the work of a higher power inadvertently, succeeding despite himself, his mind and his hands working at odds with one another?
Subtract the philosophy and the track titles, and we’re left with the music, an “edited, sampled and stretched” version of the St. Mary’s session, unrecognizable even to some of the performers. The looped piano is the most identifiable element, the backbone of the tracks, augmented by guitar, electronic effects and borrowed strings. Crackle and hum find their places in the pews; whispers rise like entreated prayers. This album’s slow undulations could actually be consolation for the tired and ill at ease, a solace, a balm that McCaffrey would call a “projection”. And yet, here he is, funneling people toward their faith. It’s entirely possible that McCaffrey’s own religious belief – or at least the self-stated curiousity that once led him to enroll in theology school – has itself been “edited, sampled and stretched” to the point that he no longer recognizes it himself. It seems to survive, an implacable mustard seed, making him the most curious of all creations: God’s instrument. (Richard Allen)