Morrissey once sung that he'd rather not go 'Back to the Old House'. And though he obviously wasn't talking about Sawmill's debut album on the classic The Smiths track, there's a quite familiar feeling between the two.
It's a song about having bittersweet feelings about your past. And that's exactly the kind of emotion that Sawmill has created on this new album, with intimate recordings featuring introspective, sentimental lyrics that evoke strong feelings of nostalgia.
Sawmill is the project of singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Nick McMillan. Having cut his teeth as a drummer in a few different Brisbane bands, he's now based in Sydney and pursuing a solo career.
As a solo artist, he applies a very DIY ethos to his work. Back To the Old House was entirely written, performed, recorded, and mixed by McMillan himself. "I would book long overnight sessions in the studio rooms after class, usually starting at 10pm and finishing at 8am," he revealed. "I'd carry armfuls of second hand, poorly DIYed repaired musical equipment up flights and flights of fire escape stairs, lock myself in a room, and work through the night like a hermit."
In fact, the only other person credited on the album is John Ruberto (mastering), who is known for his work with many Australian artists across a wide range of musical styles, including The Cat Empire, The Drones, and Boy & Bear.
But even without paying any attention to the credits, this DIY attitude presents itself in the lo-fi nature of the recordings. McMillan's breathy vocals float over layers of jangly, reverb-soaked guitars, creating a hazy, dreamy atmosphere. It's an unconventional approach to popular genres like soft rock and folk, a style that has been popularised in the indie scene by artists like Real Estate and Alex G.
Sawmill takes influences from these acts as well as the likes of Elliott Smith, Grizzly Bear, and Kurt Vile. Fans of any of these artists will gladly welcome the warm, soothing sounds of Back to the Old House.
In fact, fans of many different musical styles and genres will most likely enjoy this record; it's very accessible and easy listening. It's the kind of album that's perfect for a sleepy Sunday afternoon: warm, peaceful and relaxing. These 10 songs across just under 46 minutes will wash over you with waves of tranquility.
The greatest strength of Back to the Old House lies in its aesthetic... it speaks to a certain feeling of nostalgia and self-reflection.
The album features the previously released singles 'Heading Home' and 'Branches', the former of which contains lyrics from which the album is titled. These two tunes introduced us to the soothing style of Sawmill over the last couple of months. They both exemplify his typical sound really well, making them great showcases of the album. But there are a handful of other highlights here that deviate from the typical formula.
The opener 'Parting Clouds' welcomes us to the world of this album at a bit of a brisker tempo than what was probably expected, making for a lively start, especially when the drums really kick in at around the 1:30 mark.
'Windowsill' is another track with a greater sense of urgency, with the technical guitar work and steady fast paced drums of the verses more indicative of a classic indie rock style. The chorus then reverts to a more sparse and lethargic style, before the song picks up again for a memorable bridge which crescendos into the final chorus.
On 'Street Address' the guitars turn up to just about the heaviest they'll get on the record, but it still manages to sound pretty dreamy. The stark contrast between the rock instrumentation of overdriven guitars and steady drumming with McMillan's subdued vocals is no doubt influenced by the shoegazing scene of the late 80s and early 90s. Undertones of this style are present in a handful of other tracks here, but on this song it really stands out, and it makes for one of the best moments of the album.
If there is a glaring criticism of Back to the Old House, though, it's that a lot of the material lacks variety. A bunch of these tracks, as pleasant as they may sound, just kind of pass by without leaving a lasting impression, or without any unique qualities really differentiating them from each other. A bit more variance in the tone or instrumentation of some of these songs here would have gone a long way.
But although it may get a bit sonically monotonous at times, the vivid imagery of McMillan's lyrics ensure that this album is anything but dull. Although the soft and floaty quality of the vocals makes these lyrics sometimes hard to decipher, it's worth listening a bit closer to hear McMillan's poetic, introspective musings. The lyrics focus on some very personal topics such as loneliness and anxiety, and use fantastic descriptive writing to conjure up imagery of all things natural, like forests, rivers, and mountains.
The greatest strength of Back to the Old House lies in its aesthetic. It's not an album that will blow you away with its technical performances or its catchiness, but it speaks to a certain feeling of nostalgia and self-reflection. And for those of you who just can't get enough of that low-key, atmospheric lo-fi indie, it will absolutely scratch that itch and more.