“They play Sleepy Jackson on the radio, and that’s the way I like it”—Ben Lee
Ben Lee couldn’t have said it any better, yet I bet even he, countryman to Luke Steele, couldn’t have predicted the glorious pop wizardry of Personality, the second album from Steele’s project, the Sleepy Jackson. Steele, the Aussie son of a blues singer, and a dead ringer for Benicio Del Toro with better skin (at least in his current incarnation, his first album had him looking like a French sailor), formed the Sleepy Jackson in 1998. Since that time, the band has gone through consistent lineup changes and has alternately been hailed as `internationally acclaimed’ and `obscure,’ a dichotomy that Steele should overcome with this sophomore effort. It’s been almost exactly three years since the release of Lovers, the first Sleepy Jackson full-length (they released mostly EPs prior), and with Personality, Steele has made that intervening time more than worth the wait.
It’s been an even longer time since Brian Wilson was producing at the peak of his symphonic career (1966’s Pet Sounds) and since George Harrison overwhelmed doubters of his songwriting prowess with his debut (1970’s All Things Must Pass). Steele’s songs more than resemble a combination of the work of these two giants, and in fact, I would say his music is what might have happened had Lennon and Harrison split from the Beatles and joined the Wilson brothers in a supergroup extravaganza. Throw in a little Who, ELO, and fellow Aussie Olivia Newton-John, and you’re even closer to hitting the mark. Of course, in that instance, I wouldn’t have called the result `the Sleepy Jackson,’ a name Steele picked in remembrance of a narcoleptic drummer, but instead would have named it `Who are the Beatelo Newton Boys?’ I can almost guarantee that you have not heard anything as melodic as Personality this year (OK, maybe Belle & Sebastian’s The Life Pursuit). Put another way, if you hybridized A.C. Newman and Dan Bejar into the purest essence of ’70s style power pop, you’d end up with the Sleepy Jackson.
In contrast to the debut, Lovers, it’s almost impossible to talk about particular songs. The entire album seems to flow as one cohesive `popera,’ again, much like Pet Sounds. But even that example will yield some particular standout tracks. Opener “You Needed More” can best be described as a Harrison-esque wonder, while follower “Devil Was in My Yard” is more of a Bowie styled song, yet both retain the flourishes and layered vocal harmonies that typify Wilson. One of the major highlights is a song called “I Understand What You Want But I Just Don’t Agree,” which features the backup female vocals of Juanita Tippins in a dead ringer for Olivia Newton-John. Throughout the track, I kept waiting to be asked if I had never been mellow. “Miles Away” is a simpler tune, if the word simple can be used for any of these multi-dimensional pop stunners, and yet another song from Steele that will resonate with you long after you’ve stopped playing it, which will be a task in itself. Caution: Personality will wear out your `play’ and `repeat’ buttons.
Australia natives are prone to calling their homeland Oz, which, if that holds true, then Luke Steele is the great and powerful Wizard, masked by the guise of the Sleepy Jackson. Of course, instead of lulling intruders to sleep with poppy fields, he mesmerizes his listeners with incredibly ambitious pop music. (Architecture in Helsinki could turn in a surprising debut acting performance as the band of flying monkeys!) Everything about Personality overwhelms the senses, from the incredible art in the packaging to the collection of songs themselves, which somewhat disproves the thought that this album came from seemingly nowhere. And to spite an old cliché, although the cover art and music are intricate and beautiful, in the end we fall in love with Luke Steele’s Personality.