After being out of print for over twenty years, 1996’s Way Of All Things has made a welcome return. A remarkable debut from a band of seasoned musicians, featuring a collection of strong songs and an atmospheric production from Shane 0’Mara exemplifying the sonorous nature of the music. Overlooked, its reemergence cements the Way Of All Things as an Australian classic.
YMR Album Rating: **** (4/5)
Rebecca’s Empire came from nowhere especially to those Gen X’ers that were starting to enjoy the recently nationalised Triple J radio network, and where the music term “alternative” or “indie” started to be successfully marketed by record companies as an economically viable music genre – even though it wasn’t really a genre of music.
Rebecca’s Empire at this time consisted of Rebecca Barnard and Shane O’Mara, who were part of the Stephen Cummings band, featuring during a creatively fruitful and prolific stage of Cummings’ career. Michael den Elzen on bass, formerly of Schnell Fenster and co-producer of Deborah Conway’s successful String of Pearls album, and Peter Luscombe one time drummer of The Black Sorrows.
It was Barnard that recalled that it was the late-TV presenter, Jill Singer, that had provided her with the impetus to perform her own songs – where Singer once yelled at a Cummings gig, “Let Rebecca do a song”! – and apparently pissing off Cummings in the process. However, the feeling of being pissed off didn’t linger, as Cummings is credited in co-writing two fabulous songs on Rebecca’s Empire debut with ‘In Deep’ and ‘My Heart Sings’.
The debut album doesn’t sound like a debut – Way Of All Things shows confidence and enthusiasm, where the production from O’Mara can barely hide its exuberance with its swirling loops and atmospherics. Mix this with beautifully crafted songs and the often described honey-infused voice of Barnard, makes the Way Of All Things one of the most overlooked and best Australian albums of the nineties. Recorded at the home of Barnard and O’Mara in suburban Melbourne – despite the musical atmospherics, you can almost feel the warmth that only a home based recording can bring – visions of Middle Eastern rugs, haberdashery and homely cushions come to mind! The strength of the album comes from the songs themselves.
You’re fucking foul!
‘So Rude’ has a driving drum and bass beat mixed with O’Mara’s idiosyncratic sonic swirls adding an uncomfortable edge. A song that tackles the topic of domestic violence – the abuse of a woman from her partner – where Barnard warns the protagonist, “I wouldn’t talk to her like that if I were you“. The dilemma of being caught in a spider web of a relationship, with the poignant line “She always said her bed was cold without you/So how come she still has to hide her body from you?“. Barnard’s feeling about this protagonist is made clear as under the mix she exclaims “You’re fucking foul“!
Starting with the sounds of a sitar, the title track is a musical tour de force that is at once humorous and philosophical, “I’ve tried yoga/I’ve tried meditation/I’ve tried everything” but essentially uplifting and positive where “dream maps the road that you follow“. The song was used for the opening of the dark teen drama, Blackrock, a 1997 film that depicted the rape and murder of a teenage girl.
Even though the album tracks had airplay on the predominate young audience on Triple J , the Way Of All Things is essentially an adult album, reflecting the age of Barnard herself, who was 35 years old when the album was released. Hence we are not burdened with teen angst but instead a strong set of songs that deal with adult issues. From the Barnard penned ‘Saturn’ that contains a mesmerising swirling drum loop with a song that is romantic but ultimately turbulent “And it’s true that you and I are good together/And it is also true that you have to control that temper“; to ‘Falling Star’ which is slightly acerbic and illustrates the mental breakdown of an individual “A stranger for a friend/Yeah here you go again/The demons in your head/They’ve won out in the end“.
Many of the songs on Way Of All Things represent the anguish of relationships, the highs, lows and the insecurities. ‘Empty’ is an anthemic song penned by Barnard – and is a highlight. A driving rock song that laments the change in a relationship, perhaps in the early signs disintegration, as Barnard pleas, “Give me a sign/Give me a feeling/I’m empty“. Other songs include ‘Mirage” a track that has a slight country inflection, pondering the change in a lost love, whilst the last three songs resort to an appreciation of love from ‘My Heart Sings’ to the crowd favourite ‘Atomic Electric’ (this should have been a mainstream hit), with the last song being ‘Lullaby’ a paean to O’Mara and Barnard’s son Harry that was born the same year the album was released (with every album that Barnard releases there is a least one song devoted to her son).
Way Of All Things has now reemerged not only as a great Australian album, but also a case study of a band that could have been a lot more popular – it could have been the responsibilities of motherhood, being dropped by their record company, the conflict between O’Mara and Barnard, or that the Triple J audience had just moved on; but after the second and last album was released, Welcome in 1999, Rebecca’s Empire disbanded. Even more of a shame because Welcome was even a better record than the debut, providing more of a gritty, adult and edgier sound.
Way Of All Things should be listened to again and given its rightful place in the Australian music pantheon.