For fuck’s sake… My first interaction with Lithium Zion was with the ‘FFS’ clip and peppered underneath the video were comments from a bunch of yanks saying things like, “Sonic Youth lite”, “Lukewarm Sonic Youth”, and even such zingers as “Sonic Youth called, they want their sound back.”
Even if you were to excuse these basic AF criticisms as attention-seeking argument fuel, when you look back on the major American and British reviews of Deaf Wish’s 2015 record, Pain, the same sentiment is put forward but in a much more veiled and back-handed way. The persistent comparison had me questioning what I was hearing until I found myself going from Deaf Wish album to Sonic Youth album, actively looking for similarities. For every vaguely Sonic Youth-like bit there were umpteen Australian punk bands that could equally have been influences. With Deaf Wish, each song has many different points of reference and singling out just one misses the point. This is a rock band after all and there’s always been a certain amount of “borrowing” involved in rock over the years. It’d be fair to say Deaf Wish aren’t anything shockingly new or revolutionary but they’re certainly not a retro band either—and thank fuck for that.
Maybe the release of Pain on Sub Pop Records, and the distribution that it facilitated, resulted in swathes of people—unfamiliar with the development of Australian Punk—writing under-researched drivel.
I know that by clarifying all this, I have in fact spent a chunk of this piece mentioning Sonic Youth. The irony isn’t lost on me; this line of critique just really needed a full stop.
Right, Lithium Zion… this record is dense and structured in such a way that if you’re not paying attention, it’ll run right over you, dragging you along the road behind it. The first time I went through it, I was riding to work, wind whipping in my ears. Not the purest listening experience, but what I found was that even without being able to discern much in the way of lyrics or sonic dynamics, I was being manipulated to ride fast, ease off and then coast along the last stretch to work.
To me, Lithium Zion doesn’t so much have a structural arch but a kind of loop. The first track, ‘Easy’, feels like the opener. There’s something inexplicable in the first few bars that gives you a sense of beginning or even a kind of introduction to the different elements at play and what to expect from the rest of the record. The decidedly upbeat bounce swagger of ‘FFS’ then subverts this downbeat expectation.
This theme of contrast and compliment is repeated throughout the first side, with ‘FFS’ against the frenzied ‘Metal Carnage’, versus the languid sounding ‘The Rat is Back’, which goes head to head with the sprawl of ‘Ox’, a song that in turn goes hand to hand with the short, sharp punch of ‘Hitachi Jackhammer’. By the time you get to the instrumental ‘Lithium Zion’, you’re welcoming the chance to catch a breath—and from here the album takes you on a much more flowing, albeit less exciting, progression through the second side.
When we get to ‘Smoke’, we know we’ve come full circle. The song has the equal but opposite effect to ‘Easy’. It’s a coming together of all the elements at play within the record. It has that album closer feel to it where, like with ‘Easy’, you get a sense very quickly that we’ve reached the end. It makes good on the record’s promises and reaches just that little bit further than the other tracks. The song then abandons you in a silence you either want to stew in or kill by throwing the whole record on again.
This record is worth more than the passing listen. In fact, rather than listen to it on a windy ride to work, listen to it on public transport, or in your car if you’ve got one. With the way this record can affect you physically, you’ll want it up close.
This being Deaf Wish’s fifth full-length album, and second for Sub Pop, you’d expect that maybe this record might be a little more “polished” or maybe even have a lil’ more “production value” than their previous work, and while both of these things may be true to some small degree, this record still sounds like four people playing in a room together—at roughly the same time. The drums don’t sound like they’re in some expensive studio, they sound like they’re in a modest room, with a modest amount of mics, and just played really fucking well. And it’s a good thing they’re played so well because something has to drive a nail through the noise.
Maybe it’s the weather, but to me the paired guitars on this record fit over the ears like an itchy woollen jumper—thick, hairy and kind of cold initially, but warm eventually. They tickle at each ear in a way that had me looking from one speaker to the other in order to find the source. The bass pulled this Ear Tickler stunt on me too, particularly the start of ‘The Rat is Back’, where the bass starts and sits on this unnerving note for an uncomfortable amount of time before finally relaxing into the next part.
This phenomenon occurs all the time throughout the record. All of a sudden, mid-song, both guitars and sometimes the bass will confidently veer into these chaotic areas and then just as suddenly merge together again on the same road, the whole thing resulting in a lot of clenching and unclenching.
So, other than the clenching, what makes this record worthwhile? I mean, this is a completely and unashamedly rock record. There’s no cop-out synth instead of guitar going on here. No attempt to reinvent the wheel—so why spin it again? Because Deaf Wish aren’t bullshitting you.
In fact, Deaf Wish aren’t bullshitting themselves is more accurate. In ‘FFS’ Sarah Hardiman’s lyrics, “Guard your heart, it’s not a target for love. Keep it, Sarah, you’ll need it”, makes it blatantly obvious that this track is about some home truths. It comes off because this vulnerability is paired with this snarled fuck-you delivery that makes the song impervious.
Similarly, but in a more disguised way, ‘The Rat is Back’ has Jensen Tjhung singing, “I’m tryna turn a corner whilst watching the door because the rat, the rat is back.” All metaphor-deciphering aside, the song has the feeling of a slow but nevertheless impending doom. And look, maybe there’s not as much rich inner meaning going on in the song as I’m making out, but the fact that the clip for ‘The Rat is Back’ features Tjhung singing in first person straight to camera does give weight to the idea that this too is about those home truths.
‘Birthday’ pares down the celebration of another year gone into a two-and-a-half minute nugget of despair and estrangement with an aftertaste of nostalgia. Hardiman sets the scene, “It’s your birthday–she hung up all the wrong pictures of you, the ones where you look unhappy”, and we’re immediately thrown into the picture. There is a sense that this botched gesture is just another in a series of events all pointing to the cutting of ties. “Ashamed to say, I don’t want to be like you. I’m guilty, it’s too late, it’s too sad for me, I’m leavin’.” The bitter pang follows, “we used to meet, in the night, by the trees, away from the family – just bein’ kids – just bein’ kids.” The delivery on the last two lines is almost like the end of a children’s cereal commercial. It’s so saccharine and out of step with the rest of the song that it’s almost funny, but you don’t laugh.
There is no one song on Lithium Zion that you can point to lyrically that represents the Sisyphean dread that this record puts forward as a whole. In a more literal sense, ‘Deep Blue Cheated’ touches on this dread when Tjhung is “dig, dig, digging” away at metaphorical holes, but the feeling is weaved into the record throughout. There’s a sense of many small things falling apart, amalgamating into a much more grotesque truth about the state of things.
Deaf Wish – Lithium Zion
Released by Sub Pop in July 2018
Sam Varney is a musician, writer and dog wrangler living in Melbourne via Hobart. His music can be found here.