Throughout the ritual feast that is any well-lived human life, there will be some moments that are like hidden Bouviers, just waiting for their stole-clad instance of glamorous discovery and a Camelot waltz into the pages of history – and others that will be the plain sister who knows it. A certain type of person will drink every day and piss their looks down the sink without even realizing it before 20 years have gone by and 50 of them were marched across what remains of their face, while another kind will be Keith Richards about it and get sexier by the swig because of the fault-lines and gravity-reconfigurations. Gracefulness and recklessness only ever meet and make out in one very particular place, however, whether said grace be dripping in Kennedy diamonds or oozing British anti-charisma.
That locale is within the exquisitely resonant pauper’s tomb of stouthearted self-ownership. Wearing the stigmata of alienation as only an amble-worthy Australian can, Wesley Dean is an artist who appears to have been born with the innate understanding that being uncomfortable opens the aperture of your life in a way that nothing else ever will. With Unknown, his latest full-length and in-full-bloom offering, he has not just turned the radial velocity of his life into tunes that will twist your blood, but done so in a manner that quietly praises the virtues of precarity, showing it to be – when answered rather than avoided – a thing glowing like new love.
Some would say that struggle and strife are the only maturation conditions under which the lionhearted part of any man can be loosed. Life certainly taught Wesley Dean early how all of the best elements of it are held together by mere rose metals, and that the one thing you can never do is allow your dreams to get outbid by the odds – or even your internal worry about your own oddity. The Japanese aesthetic tradition of Wabi-sabi is a concept that celebrates what is transient in this life and accepts decay as the second, natural stage of any true beauty. Wesley Dean’s music cranks this idea one louder and insists that all of the hope and happiness happens only when all the holiest parts of a person are playing heathen snooker with chaos in carotene lipstick.
Wesley Dean is, first and foremost, a wayfarer who understood the cantilevered offer of life from his youngest years, and he is now an artist through whom the disjointed patchwork of the highway and its possibilities serves as both turf and tribute. He is a time-traveling troubadour from every time and no time simultaneously, making him peculiarly perfect for this time in a way few, if any, of his contemporaries could legitimately claim. There is an unflinching insurrection in him that is stonecutter congruent for strength. You can hear it in all of the songs, screaming its yard of stars at the grueling transits and squalid suicides that become the fizzled endings of less immovable men.
Dean’s sonic influences span from Glenn Shorrock to Dusty Springfield and onwards through Elvis and Bob Dylan, all of whom can be heard passing in a ghost boat within his fabulist compositions as well as the mode in which he sings them. His quiet, knowing way of disarming and describing life’s more showboating emotions has been compared to that of Chris Stapleton, but the truer and much more apt analogy is Kris Kristofferson – the lyrical luchador from whom even Stapleton himself would admit to having drawn innumerable buckets of inspiration. Wesley Dean has that kind of road dust on him and in him, that brand of Billy the Kid bucking out at you behind every barre chord. He is that species of easy, natural performer in the storytelling style of Johnny Cash, and right up there with all the world-beaters and wintertide for gently forcing you to the right kind of chills.
For those not in yet in the know, Wesley Dean’s professional musical trajectory goes a bit like this: in late 2003, he sang lead in Tambalane with Ben Gillies, in 2008 he won Australian Idol, essentially on a whim; in 2009 he released The Way The World Looks, off which “You” was a smash single; in 2013 he let us in on his Roadtrip Confessions, and by 2018 taught the listening world the true definition of Australiana. 2020 and 2021 saw him send out a spate of standalone singles such as “Are You Gonna Save My World,” “Gypsy,” “Don’t Look Back” and “What Ifs & Whys,” all of which seemed to lean beckoningly in an audacious aural alleyway only Dean was privy to, smoking derisively at the nullified notion that nocturnes couldn’t be sung about daylight colors.
There were also those, such as “I Still Wait For You,” that could put Jack Johnson to shame for pure, unpolished beach poetry. All of Wesley Dean’s songs, from any era of his creative life, showcase an intrinsic awareness that language and words are what give our experiences a home, maybe the only one they will ever have outside of our ever-warping memory of them.
While most of the world had crashed to a collective and very complete coda by early 2021, Wesley Dean was moving his young family quite literally to the other side of the world from everything he knew as familiar in any form, willfully adding a level of unpredictability to what was already this generation’s most unprecedented year. The renegade spirit in the new record which came out of that Herculean transition can neither be adequately corralled in words nor replicated via any other avenue.
As a piece of audible art, Unknown is positively respirating with stories that announce their depth at a half-glance and places where time runs on odd bends. Produced and mixed by Justin Cortelyou, it is a record alive with the burning lakes and sheathed swords of a shoeless hero who sought to learn all there was to know about this ravening monster known as mankind. Unknown is an Excalibur tale, told from the standpoint of the Stone. Road fables this autobiographical can only be properly read aloud by a voice with some traffic in it, and Wesley Dean’s voice is vintage corduroy in a marmalade shade, full of tomahawk tones that either turn like a coiled serpent in his palm or ring out like a midnight mass held in the bright sacrament of high noon.
In lead track “Leave Adelaide Alone,” the city of his birth stands in a as an abandoned lover, the kind you simply outgrow but never stop caring deeply for. It is a song about the spherical thinking regarding your original home that only comes once you have left it for a long, long time. “Never Thought Of You” nods to the view of one’s parents’ divorce once seen through adult eyes, and shows how familial grief is the unleavable departure lounge in an airport of wingless birds – such a specific kind of pain that Dean burnishes to a bright patina by having the inner valor not to look away from it.
“Gaslighter,” besides being a personal favorite of certain elfin ears, is a song those same Legolas lobes were fortunate enough to hear Wesley Dean sing live at his eighth-ever show in America, at Atlanta’s City Winery on a Monday made far less mundane by his performance. Containing exquisitely insightful lines like, “I was never begging for your help / So please don’t flatter yourself,” the tune is an accusation aflame about the bartering we do with brutes before we get brave enough to banish them. Written about Dean’s original rep here in America who turned out not to be who he said he was, even this common hurt the Sunshine Coast craftsman has turned on its head, using the gaslighter in question as the fuel not just for his exit, but for his next excellence. Excellent advice for us all.
The enclosed tunnel of reverberation in “Gateway 7” is calling down Tom Petty from his jangling Heaven, the rafters and whiskey-dipped levies of Dean’s voice on full display here in a song that is sexy in the way of kissing a stranger in a nightclub. Only Wesley Dean could have followed such a mood with “Pages,” a pressurized piano ballad about that which can be sluiced from one’s soul by purposely turning the past and its paralytic regrets to cinders and taking each day as an isolated penguin post office from which you can write anything, send away anyone, and post everything productively back to yourself.
Wesley Dean is never better than when he is singing at something, and maybe best when he is singing to an intangible thing. In “Anxiety” that untouchable thing is the whisper-network of self-doubt, which he calls out as the over-compensatory guttersnipe that it is and lets it know in no uncertain terms that he is wired much too fiercely for any such ignominious end as cowing to its dark demands. Speaking of shadows, “Is Anyone Alive” starts off in low, Tartarean underwaters that have a narrative necessity all their own, and which powerfully hearkens back to everything The Highwaymen were about – which was everything that mattered most in this life.
“Hello, I Love You, Goodbye” may be the alpha song here for emphasizing the whole record’s underlying message: that absolutely everything represents catch-kindling in the chronicle of exploration that should form the pavement of any person’s experience on this Earth. In a Traveling Wilburys-esque way, this one underscores the intemporality and Whippet-speed of everything that will ever happen to you, and asks you not to be so shocked by it when the pattern is just as the title suggests, and always the same. Knowing Dean to be a great fan of Jim Morrison and The Doors allows the secondary enjoyment of what he’s done, consciously or otherwise, with the name of this tune as well.
Because he was a boy tuned to an open, inquisitive frequency from birth, Dean can sing “Never Goin’ Back To The Darkside” with the intuition of one who fully became himself under the power of the uniquely benighted-schmaltz in the boondog life. His voice here is a haven for older wolves and you will despise yourself if you miss the Van-Halen-to-Vai-like electric guitar break that is baring its teeth beneath the last bars, a gorgeous menace in a musical sea of strings and droplets of keys at the end.
“Eleven One” appears on the album in a live rendition and with the indelible inversion of a classic platitude, “if the shoe fits, then you don’t have to wear it.” Melding the pandemic mask image with one of psychological reflection amid all of the costuming humans do in order to cover their own nakedness when alone with their thoughts, “Eleven One” is a song that actively ponders without answering: if you really could rewind the versions of yourself back to the beginning with each rotation of a turned hat brim in your hands, would you?
“Where Only You and I Remain” boasts a welcome bit of Allman Brothers in its chorus while the immense, astral echo of “Time Is A Tale” must certainly have caused John Lennon to wink down on Wes in soul-synchronous approval of that song’s lyrics, lift, and Lydian optimism. The final two songs rounding out Unknown, “That’s Why I’m Here” and the titular “Unknown,” are open letters to Dean’s family, expressing his gratitude and awe of them for following him here, and likewise announcing in the most vivid sparseness yet his unwavering intention of dying like an emperor if he must on the altar of his dreams – facing the sky.
QRO was graced with the quadruple-shot-espresso privilege of shutting down Nashville’s Frothy Monkey coffee shop with Wesley Dean on a four-hour Friday night when he was still deep in the writing wonder-zone of Unknown. Because he can talk animatedly of everything from moonwalks to skeptical gypsy ghost-women, your official cassowary correspondent here would have considered every minute of his conversational genius better than Nitro brew and night drives, whether his passport had a kangaroo on it or not. Read on for Oz marvels and opalite ruminations from a bona fide wind walker.