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Spartan, Emphatic – Ed Kuepper’s “Lost Cities”

Ed Kuepper
Lost Cities
Prince Melon Records

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A pavane (pronounced PA-vin and often spelled without the silent ‘e’) was a slow processional dance popular in part of 16th C. Europe that faded toward the middle of the 17th century while the word itself survives to this day in reference to works – mostly musical but occasionally ballets and plays as well – the authors of which wish to gild with an archaic resonance. Though the time signature – a gentle, deliberate 4/4 – comports to the form, one rather gathers that “Pavane,” the first track on Ed Kuepper’s new album Lost Cities, is meant to more convey the latter-developed definition, though I’d hasten to suggest that one replace the word ‘archaic’ with ‘timeless.’

Slow to reach the ears, drifting up to volume the way a cicada’s dusty skirr might arrive on a lonely summer’s day, the first few delicate strums of amplified acoustic introduce a sense of atmosphere suggesting a vantage point arrived at after a long journey across complicated plains, that point on a trail when an outcropping’s been reached and a glance back at the many miles can finally be taken. Admittedly a lot to read from a simple passage of sound – and you will certainly gather your own impression – but the intimation of a kind of seasoned poignancy is unmistakable. It’s a feeling enhanced by the singer’s warm but astringent voice, a voice – sure, matured, and measured – that seems suffused with the sigh of experience, with a few long years of this living-breathing-writing songs business.

As with the fact “Pavane” comes embroidered inside a supple, subtle earworm of a melody, the fact this new album arrives in the arms of a somewhat phlegmatic overture shouldn’t surprise, as not only has it indeed been a long journey since the founding of the seminal Saints in the ancient dark ages territory of Brisbane, Australia in 1974 but even in those buzzing halcyon days – and certainly since – Ed Kuepper has always brought to his work a sharp, flinty-eyed perspective of the world and its ways as well the heart and its ways, frequently essaying that locus where the two intersect. It’s no different on Lost Cities.


Past “Pavane” comes “Friends With the Leader,” a further exercise in what one might call seething restraint, this time underscored by a ‘band’ dynamic (Cities is a solo album in the truest sense, Kuepper responsible for its every sound), the guitar, spartan but emphatic, electric now and withering, as if in tacit endorsement of the lyrics’ faintly dystopian echoes (“making friends with the leader / feeling his hands on your back // there go the young girls and you know they won’t be coming back“), liminal drums pounding furtively underneath it all like a heart growing into a slow panic. This then is the tenor of the album. One imagines a man of a certain age who really has just about seen it all singing his diary off the back porch, squinting with an ache in his eyes out at horizons perpetually hung with haze. One thing Kuepper is not nor has ever been is wistful. But neither is he hard-hearted. His work has never shied from emotion but neither has it undersold the tangle of complexities therein. Consider “(It’s) Never Too Late.”


Urged quietly along by the record’s loveliest melody (one of those that’s naggingly whistleable in a way makes you sure you’ve heard it before but in the end you can’t place it since, indeed, it’s the first you’ve heard it, a knack that, frankly, the man has long displayed), the gist of its sentiment somehow both reportorial and full of a pleading hope, the track strikes exactly that balanced Kuepperian note wherein a bitter truth is offered with a hard-won acceptance, a trademark established early on that might have been taken on spec way back when but has, after several decades, evolved into something approaching a sage’s unedited certainty. It’s a level and type of unflinching insight well-suited to an album of Lost Cities‘ temperament, where the mood is soaked in the inference (at least) of mortality and not just as pertains to the ‘singer of a certain age’ that created it.

From the broodingly uptempo “What Can I Leave You?,” its terse message suggesting people get wise now to the crippling fantasy of some angel-attended demise and narrow their eyes a bit harder at what’s in front of them (“Stop hanging on to things that don’t exist / Try not to shirk the hard work“) as Kuepper’s rhythmic guitar work flicks coils of electricity, impatient, importunate, to the dry haunted scathe of “Fever Dream” with its fleeting aboriginal flourishes glancing past an otherwise desert blues landscape to the shimmering apocalyptica of “Queen of the Vale (that’s V.A.L.E.),” backdropped by a heat-haze, umm, veil of sound that leaves one possessed, delirious with unease, all the better to absorb the granite stabs of primordial guitar when they eventually rise to the fore (all of which making for one of the more powerful album endings I’ve heard in some time), we’re presented with a record that from pillar to post has no truck with artifice, prettification for the sake of it or any level of overt hit- (or, for that matter, myth-) making. Its essences are scraped down to the aesthetically necessary, resulting in a work of uncompromised, sparse but luminous honesty, and in fact one senses, listening to Lost Cities, that it amounts in effect if not strictly by design to a kind of distillate of Kuepper’s entire creative career, Saints Aints Laughing Clowns and solo from the bristling Electrical Storm through to Jean Lee and the Yellow DogĀ to now, all of them flasked together step by step in order to reach this singular, quietly breathtaking triumph of an album.

Ideally, that’s the point, and would be true of every artist but we know with disappointed certainty that it’s not, not even close. Here, however, we have evidence of how powerful that decades-long process can be. Elemental, ravishing, intensely nuanced, Lost Cities, simply put, is a masterful work, a reward for Mr Kuepper no doubt after so many years of doggedly keeping to a path of sustained focus, a suitably sublime reward for those of us that have been following him.

Lost Cities available from Prince Melon here.