The thing about listening to truly great music is that, like any important moment in one’s life, you remember the experience clearly. It doesn’t happen often, that sensation of listening to an album and knowing, as the music swirls around you, as the vocalist sings and as the melodies bolster the lyrics, that you’re listening to something that matters.
To listen to Brisbane songstress Kate Miller-Heidke’s extraordinarily accomplished third studio album Nightflight is to be in the presence of music that not only moves you, but resonates deeply and becomes, after only a few spins, one of those altogether too rare collections of songs that you might describe as musically life-changing.
It’s the sort of album that comes along rarely, a gem like Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes, Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love or Mary-Margaret O’Hara’s Miss America. Cohesive, ambitious and stunningly realised, Nightflight is the sort of nuanced, multifaceted, astonishingly bold album that, with each listen, reveals itself anew, offering up something else to hear and to admire.
Though Miller-Heidke is a classically trained opera singer, her previous album, 2008’s double-platinum Curiouser, was largely (and very deliberately) a pop confection. Granted, it was substantive, self-aware pop, but she nonetheless recently laughingly referred to it as “an aberration.” The 11 songs that comprise Nightflight are, she also said, far more representative of both the sort of music she likes to listen to and aspires to write and perform.
Listening to Nightflight is a little like listening to Hounds of Love: it’s an immersive experience that is rather like tumbling head-first down a rabbit hole and landing in a musical wonderland that is by turns beguiling, harrowing and mysterious. Few artists, of course, are capable of eliciting such a feeling from the listener, but Miller-Heidke has always been giddily willing to experiment musically and she has gambled everything in recording and releasing this album, a far darker and more wrenchingly personal cycle of songs than anything she has previously produced.
There are still hints of her buoyant pop past, on the soaring opening track, ‘Ride This Feeling’ and the first single, ‘I’ll Change Your Mind,’ as well as blink-or-you’ll-miss-them moments of her trademark wry humour, but Nightflight is, by and large, the sort of boldly experimental and career-defining long-player that few musicians have the courage to create, let alone unleash upon the world.
Miller-Heidke has said that much of Nightflight represents the dualities of light and dark. On the album’s cover, her face stares straight ahead, half of it lit and the other half partly obscured by shadows. Her expression is neutral and her blonde hair is fanned out around her head, populated by tiny skeletal and winged creatures that are at once intriguing and vaguely disquieting.
Many of the songs have their foundations in folk music. Each song is an expertly wrought story, detailed and emotive whether it’s referencing her personal experiences or those of friends or family. The soaring, menacing ‘Sarah’ tells the story of a girl who goes missing from a musical festival only to reappear two weeks later with no memory of where she has been or what has happened to her.
The starkly chilling ‘Fire and Iron’ is narrated from the perspective of a ghost watching her childhood friend walk with her children through the Japanese gardens where she too once walked, the titular fire and iron a metaphorical allusion to the car crash in which the narrator perished. The avowedly minimalist ‘In The Dark’ opens with an aching, grief-fuelled lament – His car sits where he parked it / No more clicks on the clock / Clean and neat as he kept it / Now he’s gone, gone, gone – and was written by Miller-Heidke’s husband and collaborator, Keir Nuttall, when the couple stayed in the house once owned by his recently deceased grandparents.
‘Let Me Fade’ is both a song of surrender and a plea to be rescued. Suffused with desolation, loneliness and self-loathing, it’s a wrenching listen, as is the aching, acoustic ‘The Tiger Inside Will Eat The Child,’ a song Miller-Heidke had previously recorded, in a very different form, as part of a brief side project, Fatty Gets A Stylist. ‘Beautiful Darling’ alludes to hopefulness and the redemptive power of love while ‘The Devil Wears A Suit’ is a dark folk tale par excellence, sung in a lilting higher register that eventually builds to a chilling conclusion: Out in the garden / Under the elk-weed / Ribs in the dirt / Ribs in a dirt heap / Silence, silence.
First single ‘I’ll Change Your Mind’ is the one song that most echoes Miller-Heidke’s pop past, though it’s wonderfully subversive in the way it marries obviously buoyant pop melodies with deceptively dark lyrics. The song is sung from the perspective of a delusional woman who is stalking her ex-boyfriend, sleeping in her car outside of his house and occasionally even breaking into the home they once shared, convinced that she can make him love her again.
Undeniably one of the great strengths of Nightflight is the quality of Miller-Heidke’s lyrics. Much of the album’s strength and resonance comes, of course, from the marriage of her dextrous, beautiful voice with the melodies and stories she’s conjured, but hers are lyrics that stand up as poetry. She’s always been a deft lyricist, but Nightflight sees her at the height of her storytelling powers. There’s not one wasted word or extraneous image.
She breathes life into the tales she’s telling with her masterful wordplay, though the musical elements of the album are just as impressive. Neither a straightforward folk record nor pop-folk or pop-rock, Nightflight defies easy categorisation. Miller-Heidke and her producers, Nuttall and Lindsay Gravina, as well as a stellar line-up of musicians, have used everything from traditional acoustic guitars, drums and keyboards to lavishly realised string sections and Nightflight is near perfect in its conception and execution. The album’s sound is, at various points, both delicate and robust, much like Miller-Heidke’s rich, extraordinarily powerful voice.
The German writer Franz Kafka once told a friend that “we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” It’s a philosophy that applies to equally to all forms of art. Vapid, disposable pop songs have their place in the world, to be sure, but the music that matters is that which truly moves us and affects us deeply.
Like a novel to which you return, time and time again, a great album is also an axe for the frozen sea within and, with Nightflight, Kate Miller-Heidke has written a collection of songs that claw their way under your skin and stay there, stunning you with their resonance and beauty, their sadness and their sheer emotional power. Many artists strive an entire lifetime to create the sort of brilliant music she, barely 30, has realised here. It is an achievement of which she can be justifiably proud.