Michael Waugh - Beauty & Truth

Compass Bros. Records

****1/2

Some people spend their whole lives seeking out the metaphorical light in the hope that finding it will help bring a sense of clarity to their lives. With BEAUTY & TRUTH, his fifth album, Australian singer-songwriter Michael Waugh, has not only found that light, but is happy to share it with the world at large. One of the most gifted vocalists, he gives a series of knockout performances that transform his first-hand experiences of being gay in a straight world, with optimism and steely determination. He captures the feelings of transience that lurk around the edges of our lives and that come into the light with the dawning of realisation that it is completely freeing to be yourself; ignore all the prejudices that have coloured your life for years and take flight above this dysfunctional world on joyful wings of positivity. The album acts as a memoir for Michael, who has endured and overcome unimaginable intolerance, but found hope in friendship and his music. 

And even amidst the struggles chronicled on this record, he finds the undeniable butt-shaking soul of each and every story. Just try to sit still when you hear Michael and the studio players deliver a guilelessly uplifting set of giant-hearted rockness. In turn, the album holds space for his audience to find affinity in his trauma, and perhaps, use his lyrics as the language necessary to describe their own life struggles. 

The musicianship, from top-tier Australian talent, is a big selling point here. On song after song, the instrumental mix is sublime, not only a tribute to the skill of the players, but also to the production values of Shane Nicholson and engineer Jeff McCormack. Michael’s vocals are a selling point, too. His voice is smooth and emotional, and backing vocals from Ali Foster, James Gillard, Ollie Thorpe, Jen Mize, the Roslyns and Shane Nicholson, are about as good as can be; uplifting one minute, sublime the next. The album’s standout tunes are, fittingly, the opener and closer: We Are Alive and To Be Alive. The first defiantly stands up for all the gays, declaring proudly: ‘we are here, we’ve always been here,’ whilst with the anthemic To Be Alive, he is finally able to stand up and be who he’s always wanted to be, without any fear, shame or hangups. They act as perfect bookends. In many respects, this is a collection of unlikely love songs … sending love out to his former wife, estranged son, his current partner, the world at large, especially the gay community, but more importantly, reminding himself that it’s fine to love oneself.

He revisits his lonely teen self, growing up queer in Fix Me, with the rousing line ‘it’s the way I’m meant to be.’ You’ll have compassion for the confused kid he used to be in the anthemic Out. He even manages to find some empathy for the confused adults who got in his way and made the dark feel darker than before. This deftly told coming-of-age family drama, revealed through childhood remembrances, both nostalgic and upsetting, is yet another masterclass in telling stories through what’s left unsaid. The music is initially full of sleek, shiny surfaces that sparkle, but that’s long enough for him to light the burnt match and stick a flag on it, as the song explodes with a full-blown repeated gospel-styled chorus singing loudly and proudly: ‘Let it out, let it out, let it out now!’ Relatively stripped down, the title song offers an oblique portrait of a man out of sync with the world and its ways, though still eager to belong. It is a bittersweet regret for a messy relationship, as trying to fit in, he embarked on a short-lived marriage and fatherhood with disastrous results. His obvious pain is still deeply felt in the next song, Father’s Day, in which the ache of being cut-off from his son after being forced to walk away from his doomed marriage.

The defiant and lively action of Young And Dumb inspires the bluegrass-styled banjo and lively chorus that proclaims the freedom that only comes with radical self-realisation. There’s a softer, sensitive touch to Patsy Cline, a cleverly written song to a partner about their differences. Understated splashes of pedal steel, keyboards, and especially the exquisite background vocals, that add diverse shades to the polished sound, with drummer Ali Foster crafting subtle grooves. If you give BEAUTY & TRUTH 37 minutes of your day, the emotional return-on-investment is off the charts: proof positive that whoever you are, you’re not the only one.

www.michaelwaugh.com.au

June 2024