Dirty Three’s Whatever You Love, You Are 20th anniversary: “A labyrinth of unsullied splendour”


Dirty Three’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed Ocean Songs turned twenty earlier this year and Getintothis’ Simon Kirk looks at what is arguably their most overlooked record.

There are some bands that you would travel obscene distances to see.

I remember Jim Jarmusch once saying that when The Stooges played within the vicinity of his home it was a matter of ushering his wife and kids into the car and off they went.

In truth, we’ve all got one of those bands.

For many of us antipodeans, that band is the Dirty Three.

The Dirty Three are Australia’s greatest success story of the ’90s. Maybe beyond that decade, too.

While Australia boasted a vibrant music scene in the early and mid ’90s, largely due to factors including the waves of grunge that formed across the Pacific Ocean, along with a Labor Prime Minister in Paul Keating who took a fervent interest in the arts – more so than any other leader in the country’s history.

There was a groundswell of creative talent that greeted many Australians through the airwaves of Triple J and on Saturday mornings on the ABC with Recovery.

Not that the Dirty Three dispensed a two-finger salute to what was unravelling on local shores. They just had bigger fish to fry so to speak, playing more shows across the world than any other Australian band of that decade.

The band had a swathe of suitors, from the Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, Beck, Low and, of course, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds where Dirty Three spokesman, Warren Ellis, went on to form one of the greatest alliances Australian music has conceived.

The formation of the Dirty Three is as much an intrigue as their body-of-work.

Like a raging gully-raker of a storm, this beautiful chaos was conceived in a matter of hours before their first show in the early ’90s.

There was Melbourne’s Mick Turner on guitar, a sandy-haired gentle giant who was involved in the early incarnations of post-punk outfit, The Moodists – a band fronted by another Australian legend, Dave Graney.

Jim White was less of a steady hand and more of a colossus behind the drumkit and as a veteran of the Melbourne music scene, the stoutly built frizzy-haired skinsman was in bands such as the very underrated Blackeyed Susans, Venom P. Stinger, Busload of Faith and Kim Salmon‘s Trouble Makers.

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White, along with Turner, has since been a part of Cat Power‘s Delta Blues Band, while the former now plies his trade in Xylouris White and recently has also released a debut collaboration album with American folk drifter, Marisa Anderson.

Last but not least is the hell-raising wrecking ball better known to us as Warren Ellis, the talismanic and inscrutable firebrand who is the orchestrator of this glorious mess of noise on violin.

Adopting a stage persona that could be described as part Iggy Pop, part Jimi Hendrix, Ellis, too, was a member of the Busload of Faith and Kim Salmon‘s Trouble Makers after his stint as a music teacher in Bairnsdale, Victoria – a town located 280 kilometre east of Melbourne.

It can only be described as a mash-up of contrasting musicians and equally divergent personalities that together would conjure up a something akin to the perfect storm.

Ellis once described the Dirty Three as a fourth member.

“The Dirty Three has become this fourth person that we’ve all made together and that we have to kind of look after. If we get messed up, it gets messed up. And if we aren’t true to it, then it betrays us,” said Ellis in an interview with Triple J‘s Richard Kingsmill in the late ’90s.

Dirty Three circa 2012 (photo credit: Annabel Mehran via the band’s Facebook page)

It may be a comment spun by someone with mad-scientist tendencies, but seeing this trio live it’s a hard point to argue against, and yet one of the many juxtapositions the Dirty Three have always thrived on.

The Dirty Three live experience is one of the most captivating sequences one will endure in this life. Their unique ability to lull you into a labyrinth of unsullied splendour and blind malevolence simply holds no bounds.

Their performance captures a unique emotional intensity that few artists have ever matched. Completely unhinged and uncompromisingly original.

The band’s three album tour-de force of Dirty Three (1995), Horse Stories (1996) and Ocean Songs (1998) witnessed a run of form unseen and unmatched by any other Australian artist. To this day, the latter two albums remain as touchstones, and not just in a sense of being genre-defining or niché. Both are blueprints of the fixation that we define as art.

Which makes their 2000 release, Whatever You Love, You Are, quite the estranged beast, containing six compositions that excavate deep into the pits of inner emotional turmoil. An existential journey for the sullen.

Following the success of Ocean Songs, members of the Dirty Three kept their hands full with other projects. Ellis being a full-time member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds while Turner and White provided the backing to Cat Power‘s critically acclaimed 1998 album, the slowcore laden blues traipse that is Moon Pix. Turner also collaborated with Bonnie “Prince” Billy as The Marquis de Tren on 1999’s Get On Jolly.

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Where Ocean Songs was recorded with Steve Albini at his Electrical Audio studio in Chicago, Ellis, Turner, and White decided to continue their zigzag globe-trotting escapades, flying back over the Atlantic to the United Kingdom where Horse Stories was recorded five years earlier.

This time, the decision was to record and mix Whatever You Love, You Are at the spiritual home of Bella Union and Cocteau Twins‘ September Sound studios, which had been rented from Pete Townshend for 12 years.

The band worked alongside Lincoln Fong (Moose) who helped carve out a new dimension of sound to Whatever You Love, You Are.

Once again, the cover art of Whatever You Love, You Are is provided by Turner, whose tranquil portraits provide the perfect accompaniment to the band’s music. Over the years, Turner‘s portraits have become a story on their own.

Opening track, the slow melodic Some Summers They Drop Like Flies, eases us into the journey and instantly the mood feels different. If anything, it feels like a soundtrack for a happily married couple who have spent their life on the land, stepping into the candlelit barnyard for a romantic serenade.

The track also marks the first experiments of Ellis overlapping violin tracks, adding new dimensions into the band’s cinematic patterns of sounds.

Dirty Three at Dark Mofo festival 2019 (photo credit: via the artist’s Facebook page)

The sullen, glacial offering of I Really Should’ve Gone Out Last Night is an improv’ swoon that leads into the album’s feature offering that is the downright behemoth, I Offered it Up to the Stars and the Night Sky.

Clocking in at under fourteen minutes, it’s one of the finest cuts within the Dirty Three arsenal.

While tracks such as the doldrums-dwelling Everything’s Fucked – a literal soundtrack to everything, indeed, being fucked, and the epically gorgeous landscape of sound during Deep Waters, I Offered it Up to the Stars and the Night Sky is every bit their equal.

Turner‘s guitar rings with a tenderness never before heard, while White‘s spacious drum fills dispense those trademark throbbing echoes. Both provide that blinding backdrop for Ellis‘ wielding violin. Both man and instrument immersed in a world of their own. A completely cathartic state.

I Offered it Up to the Stars and the Night Sky encapsulates everything that makes the Dirty Three as astonishing as they are. Serene sculptures of tenderness that conjure up images of love, loss, elation, destruction. Rampant cinematic soundscapes that produce swirling juxtapositions of feral anguish and giddy euphoria. Music to, indeed, escape to the ends of the earth.

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Then there’s If Some Things I Just Don’t Want Know and Stellar. If both numbers don’t bring tears to your eyes then you’re probably dead inside.

White‘s subtle free-jazz precision and Turner‘s plucky guitars once again entwine with Ellis new found custom of violin loops. Sweeping pieces which evoke ephemeral darkness and equally fleeting rays of light.

And the anguish continues with the closing elegy of Lullabye for Christie. The kind of song that cuts you into pieces with malicious tenderness. It may just be the most beautiful tracks the Dirty Three have given birth to; no mean feat considering they had already fathered exquisite songs such as Ends of the Earth and The Last Night.

However that’s what eternal purveyors of mastery are capable of and Lullabye for Christie only furthers such claims.

There’s many reasons one could suggest that Whatever You Love, You Are is somewhat of a lost album. A black sheep, even.

With the exception of I Offered it Up to the Stars and the Night Sky, the dial of destruction was turned down a notch, with the band exploring the furrows of jazz and minimalism, making the album one that wouldn’t necessarily translate to the Dirty Three‘s boundless carnage in the live arena.

While Horse Stories and Ocean Songs are the predominate go-to albums for many, it’s not so much defining what the best Dirty Three album actually is. Their discography needs to be consumed as a complete package to capture the pure essence of their endeavours.

There’s not many bands you could say that about, however the Dirty Three are certainly one of them and Whatever You Love, You Are is perhaps the defining piece of the puzzle to crystallise such notions.

Assessing the song titles alone and Whatever You Love, You Are is certainly an inward album ubiquitous with self-contemplation. A rich meditative snapshot of a band moving forward in a bid to enhance their already wide berth of frightening splendour.

And, indisputably, they find it. Perhaps more than ever when engaging with the Dirty Three‘s music, Whatever You Love, You Are makes you feel lost in a wasteland that welcomes a new kind of insomnia.