Is this a beginning or an end for Bernard Fanning, former frontman of what was probably Australia’s biggest rock band of the last 15 years? After the break-up of Powderfinger, Fanning moved to Spain with his family in self-imposed banishment from both the music industry and Australia. It’s interesting to note the title of his second solo effort is Departures rather than Arrivals, but once you listen to the album you’ll realise that Fanning is clearly rooted in his history of anthemic rock.
Lead single Battleships is classic Fanning, and representative of the album as a whole, effectively showing off the famous range of his voice, but let down by a rather workmanlike guitar hook that does little to draw in the listener. It’s clear that Fanning is not taking any risks with his return to music, as he sticks with a tried-and-tested formula throughout the album. Each track runs to a familiar structure of bridges, simple verses and falsetto-driven choruses.
However, the differences between Departures and Tea and Sympathy, Fanning’s first solo outing from 2005, are more apparent. His attempt at writing a country record at that time ended in a sort of hybrid rock/alternative/country mutant which, despite its commercial success, felt very much like a footnote to his career with Powderfinger.
Grow Around You, vaguely reminiscent of one of the best songs Fanning has ever written – The Metre from Odyssey Number Five – is a high point, with Fanning harking back to the simple, emotional pull of that earlier album. The almost-title track, Departures (Blue Toowong Skies) is a lovely piece, with a casually picked guitar rolling into a poetic, tender track that reminds you of Augie March at their least nostalgic.
Even the influence of prolific and respected American producer Joe Chiccarrelli is not enough to save Departures from feeling like an unadventurous step sideways rather than an exciting step forwards for a clearly talented and hard-working musician. It would be nice to see Fanning work with a wider variety of influences and genres on his next attempt, as there’s no questioning his talent, just perhaps his choices in the studio and as a songwriter.
While Departures is a fine album, there’s really nothing to set it apart from Fanning’s work with Powderfinger. At the end of the day, any of the uniformly unoriginal tracks would be at home as a B-side on any Powderfinger single or a deep track on any Powderfinger album. That being said, Fanning still remains a powerful and effective lyricist, with the songs on Departures exploring in detail a variety of experiences, from death and mourning to life and fatherhood.
The feeling is that Fanning is a musician happy to produce for himself rather than for a market or audience and in that regard Departures can only be considered a success.
Watch: Bernard Fanning – Departures (Blue Toowong Skies)