Matt O'Neill

thoughts on the new Washington song, ‘Holy Moses’

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by Matt O’Neill

I’ll be honest: I love Megan Washington. Not as a musician, as a person.

Well, love is probably an exaggeration. It’s more of a crush. Needless to say, I’ve known her for a couple of years and, like most males in Australia of a certain age, I am mildly enamored of her. She’s just one of those people who is difficult not to adore. Intelligent, charismatic, beautiful, idiosyncratic, confident and creative – what’s not to love?

I thought I’d best get that out of the way. I know there’s a general assumption that male music critics use praise as a limpwristed attempt to seduce female musicians (now there’s a sexism debate, Mr True) so I figured I may as well just admit my affection from the outset. I am in no way attempting to use this review to curry favour with Ms Washington but, in the interests of full disclosure, I am consistently captivated by her.

(Bringing some perspective to matters, I am also captivated by Lady Gaga – and George Clooney.)

I was not, however, captivated by her debut album (last year’s wildly successful I Believe You Liar). Don’t get me wrong – I’ve been a fan of Megan’s work since seeing her support Nouvelle Vague back in 2008. I think she’s one of the best live performers in the country and an occasionally scintillating songwriter (even if, somewhat annoyingly, she has yet to record the utterly brilliant and surreally romantic ode to bestiality she used to play live as a solo act). Her debut album, though, left me feeling pretty cold.

I loved ‘Rich Kids’ and ‘Sunday Best’ but the majority of the album just seemed a bit like hollow – beautifully decorated but without much appeal beyond the superficial. I didn’t hate it but I was undeniably disappointed. I remember catching her on the subsequent tour and feeling similarly underwhelmed. The spark that seemed to inspire all of the vibrancy and romance of her music seemed to be flickering. What’s worse, it almost seemed like she knew it. There was an anxiety to her performances that seemed to suggest she knew something was missing.

Perhaps I’m being overly romantic with that observation. Still, I legitimately feared she was going to disappear.

This brings us to ‘Holy Moses’.

The first shred of new material to have appeared since I Believe You Liar, ‘Holy Moses’ is apparently not a single from Washington’s next record but the latest glimpse of some other mysterious project. This is interesting for a number of reasons – but mostly because ‘Holy Moses’ is potentially the single best song Washington’s ever released. It may even top the aforementioned song about the gorilla. It’d probably be the height of pretension to claim writing for a side-project has liberated her as a songwriter (and a complete cliche to boot) but she sounds distinctly reinvigorated with this song.

From a distance, it looks like another Washington single in the vein of ‘Rich Kids’, ‘Sunday Best’ and ‘How To Tame Lions’. John Castle’s faintly psychedelic, highly percussive production work is immediately recognisable while the tune’s general blend of deeper emotional pathos and danceable retro-jubilance has Megan Washington written all over it (the frenetic ‘Rich Kids’ famously started life as a piano ballad before its loneliness was thrown through the ringer).

In short, it seems to sound exactly as one would expect the latest Megan Washington single to sound. Fortunately, there’s more to it.

Firstly, there’s the lyrics. I’ve always enjoyed Washington’s flair for wordplay but her songs have always seemed grounded in an identifiable personal narrative. There’s always a sincere, sentimental hook to the abstraction. ‘Holy Moses’ throws that hook straight out the window. Distinctly cinematic, the lyrics seem to be concerned with some kind of cross between a pathetic stalker and the kind of mysteriously powerful character embodied in tunes like Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’.

It’s a weird combination. On one level, Washington’s character seems genuinely intimidated by the titular Moses even though, at times, she seems to delight in mocking his pitiful state. “I watch you walking,” she croons in the second verse, “You look like smoke. It should be haunting – but no one’s watching”. It bathes the whole song in a bizarre, hallucinogenic mood – a strange mix of outright paranoia and empathetic amusement. Like I said, it’s weird.

Then, you have the structure. I suspect my fascination with structure and arrangement in pop music is not one shared by your typical listener but, all the same, the arrangement of ‘Holy Moses’ is freaking awesome. Beginning with a jazzy drum roll, the song delights in snaking in and around the standard verse-chorus formula but can’t seem to resist reeling off in sudden detours and spontaneous flights of fancy – both in terms of musical structure and instrumentation.

With a palette drawing on everything from upright bass and synthesiser through to theremins and kazoos, the song swirls, sprints and tumbles over itself with a manic glee that makes previously frantic cuts like ‘Rich Kids’ seem positively ham-fisted and sedate. It’s a heady rush of stimulus and perfectly complements the strange mood evoked by the lyrics.

Now, I’m well aware a lot of this stuff can be found in prior Washington singles but it’s compounded with ‘Holy Moses’. The song feels like an explosion of her style. It’s manic, desperate and insane. I love it. I’ve listened to it literally 30 times today.

(For the record, I’m also aware that most people who read this and hear the song will think I’m daft. I know I would. Still, fuck it.)

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