The Black Death was possibly the most devastating pandemic in human history. A bubonic plague caused by bacteria was carried on oriental rat fleas, the disease spread from China to Europe by rodents stowed away on merchant ships docking at Mediterranean ports in the 14th century. Symptoms included breathing difficulties, armpit boils and groin infections – the outcome, certain death. The sick were isolated, left to die in misery and despair. In 1349, the Black Death reached Mecca, the religious capital of The Middle East and it is here that the Australian namesake band open with their debut album. Two months after its release, they broke up.
The Middle East has always made affecting music. The Recordings Of The Middle East EP is a collection of intricate and ornate folk. ‘The Darkest Side’, ‘Lonely’ and ‘Blood’ were fragile enough to melt your heart, yet powerful enough to break it; however tragic though, hope always shone through.
On I Want That You Are Always Happy, all hope is beleaguered to say the least – in fact, there’s a distinct air of bleakness … suffocating doom even. Save an early dance around a campfire to the cheerful ‘Jesus Came To My Birthday Party’ and jaunty ‘Land of the Bloody Unknown’, I Want That you Are Always Happy is a depressed and unstoppable wagon train.
But bleak can be beautiful. ‘Sydney to Newcastle’ plays with spaciousness, not much more than a piano line and faint train station announcements. The simple arrangement of ‘Mount Morgan’ augments the gut wrenching emotion of the song – slow driving guitar underlining Jordan Ireland’s sombre low range drone. This austere approach has physical as well as mood-altering properties. With only Ireland’s vocal and simple keys, ‘My Grandmother Was Pearl Hall’ is a grave listen, one that sends a synaptic spark from ear drum to tear duct. And as the violin strings and flute sweep up at the end of ‘Very Many’, your heart will lift into your throat.
The subtly of instrumentation on I Want That You Are Always Happy is such that at times it is easy to forget that The Middle East are, or were, a seven member group. Far from overloading, there are few moments where the band plays in full swing; only ‘Months’ and ‘Dan’s Silverleaf’ recalling the leg-slapping country folk of the band’s earlier EPs.
It is a combination of sparse arrangements and country folk that make up the whole of this album, and its epicentre lies in ‘Deep Water’ – ten minutes of slide & acoustic guitar, huskily whispered vocals with perfectly placed banjo and piano, as breath-taking as it is wallowing.
For their first, and it seems only, full length record The Middle East shunned their early charm for something more direct. Folk music that is so bare it is completely misinterpretable: you can’t rely on faith – life can be harsh, lonely and unforgiving. They are so successful in conveying these emotions, that it might just be to their detriment. The truth is, for the listener, to revisit the intensity of I Want That You Are Always Happy is a big ask … perhaps an even bigger ask for the band.