‘Good Citizens’ by Cash Savage and the Last Drinks is an album split in two.
Its first half represents a foray into more politically charged songwriting, with an overall sound that is more glossy and produced than any of the group’s previous work. The second half is classic Cash Savage—huge and aggressive ballads packed full of existential aphorisms, like the Bad Seeds with a banjo. In this way, the album represents the fork in the road met by any successful musician: To stick with the tried and true at the risk of becoming stale? Or to delve into new and uncharted territory? Unlike Bob Dylan going electric and alienating his audience, or Mazzy Star rewriting the same song to critical acclaim, Cash Savage attempts to deliver the best of both worlds.
The new direction on the album’s first half is a marked departure from the group’s trademark sound. Songs such as ‘Better Than That’ and ‘Pack Animals’—while lyrically extremely effective in conveying the anger and hurt caused by Australia’s Same-Sex Marriage Plebiscite (“There’s a lot of people out there thinking I’m up for discussion”) and misogyny in the music industry (“He says I’m being too sensitive”)—stray too far from what Savage is good at musically. They resemble the guitar-based, feminist music of artists such as Courtney Barnett and Camp Cope, but the pared down instrumentation fails to achieve the huge sound that is fundamental to Savage’s musical identity.
Similarly, tracks ‘Human, I Am’ and ‘Found You’ sound more produced than any of her previous work. The punchy bass, insistent cowbell and dexterous use of instrumental layering convey a disco feel typical of more mainstream bands such as Brisbane’s Jungle Giants. Savage’s ardent delivery of her lyrics is at odds with the lyrical ambiguity necessitated by this more commercial format and genre. Despite the slight disjuncture between instrumental style and lyrical delivery and message, the songs’ contemporary focus and relative musical accessibility render them genuinely powerful as tools to deliver a meaningful political message, and it is admirable that Savage is so willing to discard a reliable sound to achieve this.
The album’s second half delivers her signature sound, the minor chords and wailing lament of ‘Sunday’ emerging like an ersatz oasis after the sand of the first three tracks. This and ‘Kings’ contain the chain-gang clap of the group’s best work, such as ‘Rat a tat tat’, while ‘Collapse’ delivers a foreboding crunch similar to the title track of their 2013 LP The Hypnotiser. It is here that we realise the necessity for Savage’s musical experimentation—that on her fourth record, crossover with her previous work does indeed begin to occur. Similarly, the opening lines of ‘February’ (“It’s February, it’s raining”) mirror that of ‘Do You Feel Loved’ from One of Us (“It was Thursday and it was raining”). We realise that while these songs are extremely fucking good, we have heard them before, and even if we don’t like the new songs, we are wishing creative death upon an artist by expecting them to stick to one fixed style forever.
So. Four new songs. Four old songs. But there is one aberration. One song that brilliantly synthesises the best of old and new. The title track ‘Good Citizens’ sets the band’s newfound political ardency atop their signature sound, creating something that is familiar but sufficiently lyrically unpredictable that it is not simply retreading old ground. In four lines, this track distills the pain experienced by LGBTI community as a result of the Marriage Equality Plebiscite better than the whole of ‘Better Than That’, lamenting of mainstream attitudes to matrimony: “They don’t know what all the fuss is about, marriage isn’t even that good anyway / Ain’t it funny how they joke about their wives as if they hate them.” The unrelenting misery of the track’s instrumentation speaks to the subject matter far more effectively than the album’s attempt at upbeat pub rock, proving that Cash Savage and the Last Drinks do not need to reinvent themselves to make meaningful music. In trying so hard to prove that they are capable of impacting Australia’s political landscape, they forget that they already are.