Thelma Plum has arrived as Australia’s next iconic singer, songwriter and storyteller with her long-anticipated debut album, Better In Blak – relating her experiences as a young Gamilaraay woman negotiating love, life, identity and the intergenerational trauma of colonialism and racism. She’s described it as “cathartic in a weird way”. Indeed, Better In Blak is starkly open.
For Better In Blak, Plum has recorded everything from Tom Petty-mode country-rock driving songs to socially-conscious retro-soul. But it likewise signifies Plum’s evolution from plucky folkie to shiny pop queen – one who’d surely spur Beyonce Knowles and Taylor Swift to don shades, her star so bright.
On Plum’s old triple j Unearthed page, she cites as influences Paul Kelly, mythic rocker Marianne Faithfull, and cult folk artist Vashti Bunyan. This individualism has been a constant in her work. Plum was a teen when she premiered with 2012’s rootsy ‘Father Said’, then toting an acoustic guitar. Two years on, and signed to Warner, she issued her breakthrough second EP, Monsters, liaising with the hip-hop M-Phazes – and developing an expansive, band-oriented approach. Along the way, Plum covered Chet Faker’s roller-disco jam ‘Gold’ for Like A Version. She collaborated with AB Original. In the interim, Plum reportedly shelved an earlier album she simply outgrew.
Better In Blak finds the sometime Brisbane resident connecting with Alexander Burnett – the former Sparkadia frontman now an in-demand producer based out of London. (Burnett is also half of the house music combo Antony & Cleopatra alongside the Brit Anita Blay, aka CocknBullKid.) Burnett brings a Lizzo-worthy chart gleam to Better In Blak, but doesn’t impose.
Thelma Plum has much to say, and complex feelings to articulate, on Better In Blak. Crucially, she’s amplifying her socio-political voice. Plum consistently keeps it raw – her stance ‘no bull’. Regardless, whether her songs are critical or confessional, she conveys, if not levity, then wry humour.
Plum wrote the album’s title-track, and current single, after being harassed by racists via social media. But, here, she specifically challenges those gaslighting, tone policing or muting her that such toxicity isn’t about colour. Ironically, ‘Better In Blak’ is sublime vintage soul ‘n’ b. The lyrics extoll resistance, resilience and restitution. “Fuck that, I look better in blak,” Plum states in the chorus. She duets with Gang Of Youths’ David Le’aupepe on the deep alt-country ‘Love And War’ – their response to Four Corners’ harrowing allegations of human rights abuses against Indigenous minors at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory.
Still, Better In Blak is ultimately about Plum living her best life. She radiates charm on the doo-bop hit ‘Clumsy Love’, the LP’s indelible first single aired back in mid-2018. Initially twangy, ‘Clumsy Love’ bursts into post-Charli XCX dance-pop – even as Plum rues a nonreciprocal relationship. She makes a breezy declaration in ‘Not Angry Anymore’ – latent tropical house. Aside from revealing an emotional vulnerability, the singer realises that she is internalising resentment towards an ex. An older number, the acoustic ‘Nick Cave’ tells of a crush Plum desperately tried to impress – with some endearing admissions.
Better In Blak has other songs where the personal and the political merge in a new poetic paradigm – Plum rendering that catharsis into a form of empowerment, while assuming authorship of her own narrative. In the affecting ballad ‘Homecoming Queen’, she contemplates the impact on her self-image of not seeing Indigenous women represented in the media as a child. In ‘Woke Blokes’, an electronic groove with organ, Plum (gently) mocks male intersectionalists who performatively disguise their sanctimony. The piano-led ‘Thulumaay Gii’ deals with the hurtful fallout engendered by an absent father.
The album’s barest sequence sonically comes near the end – Plum softly singing ‘Do You Ever Get So Sad You Can’t Breathe’ with only guitar for accompaniment. It accentuates her expressively soulful voice, with vibrato in the tradition of Randy Crawford and Deni Hines.
Perusing the credits of the symphonic finale ‘Made For You’, it’s tempting to herald Plum as potentially a Solange-level curator/auteur – the OMG names ‘Paul Kelly’ and ‘Paul McCartney’ leaping out (David Kahne is producer). Yet, again, Plum’s collabs are lowkey. In fact, she penned ‘Made For You’ with Kelly in Melbourne. But, serendipitously, The Beatles’ Paul McCartney heard the song on passing through a New York studio – and implored that he track additional guitar. In recent years, Macca has joined Nirvana’s surviving members live and graced Kanye West’s ‘FourFiveSeconds’ with Rihanna. However, ‘Made For You’ feels the most meaningful – as if the two GOAT Pauls have intuited that Plum is the future.
Better In Blak really is a restorative musical revolution.