Photo by Genevieve McCoy

Review: David Kilgour is playing it cool

Grant McDougall reviews Kilgour’s new solo album, Bobbie’s A Girl, which sees him reflecting on the deaths of his friend and former bandmate, Peter Gutteridge and his own mother, Helen Kilgour.

There is a passage in Shayne Carter’s excellent recent autobiography, Dead People I Have Known, in which he describes David Kilgour’s reaction to one of the songs he’d written to deal with the accidental death in 1985 of his Doublehappys bandmate, Wayne Elsey:

“…maybe he didn’t feel comfortable with their emotionalism either. I can remember playing him one of my upset songs on an acoustic in my lounge, and the stridency of my singing reeked as much as the fetid lyrics. David Kilgour didn’t say anything, because David plays it cool, but I felt enough shame for both of us.”

That is a telling and highly relevant comment by Carter, for Kilgour still plays it cool, both personally and musically.  There is an air of gravitas throughout Bobbie’s A Girl – it is a remarkably restrained, measured and dignified album.

Gutteridge’s passing sent shockwaves through the Dunedin music community and their friends. There’s a passage from Roger Shepherd’s excellent 2016 autobiography, In Love With These Times, in which he describes the last time he saw Gutteridge in person, playing a shambolic set at a Christchurch earthquake relief gig in Dunedin, in March, 2011. I was at that gig and so was Helen Kilgour. Despite being in her late 80s, Mrs Kilgour would also periodically shimmy around for a song or two during the evening. 

At the gig, a friend who’d recently given birth to her second daughter got into what was, by her account, a charming conversation with “Mrs Clean” (as she was known) about motherhood and her sons’ songs and records. 

Tom Bell and David Kilgour. Photo: Supplied

The passing of these two people has undoubtedly caused Kilgour much personal anguish, which is where it remains: personal and private. There is no overt angst or self-pity here, that’s for sure. Creatively, however, it’s as if he’s taken a deep breath and decided to blow out the cobwebs.

Bobbie’s A Girl is David Kilgour’s eleventh solo album. It features many of the qualities displayed from his 1991 solo debut Here Come The Cars onwards – languid vocals, beautiful, mainly gentle guitar riffs splashed about and gentle, slowly-pulsating rhythms. While the songs themselves are uniformly strong, a more noticeable aspect is the serious (but by no means melancholic) feel to the album and the minimal lyrics, unlike the two wordy collaborations with Sam Hunt, Fallen Debris and The 9th.

The album opens with gently picked guitars on the appropriately-titled ‘Entrance’, before slow rhythms and the vaguest hints of feedback occur. Next is the more uptempo ‘Smoke You Right Out Of Here’ which opens with the line “I’m gonna let you go now”, which is as blatant as things get lyrically. 

‘Crawler’ is a highlight. Picked guitars and eerie keyboards swirl around and incantatory “Aaah-aaah” vocals are exhaled. It’s unlike little else Kilgour has done and wouldn’t be out of place on the landmark early 70s albums by krautrock legends Popol Vuh.

The next few songs, ‘Threads’, ‘Coming In From Nowhere Now’ and ‘Spotlight’ all display Kilgour’s typically effortless knack for a delightful, chiming melody. More relevantly, ‘Threads’ typifies the vocal approach on the album: echoing, whispered and sparse. Four out of the ten songs on the album are instrumentals and the lyrics on the other six are as concise and economic as haiku. 

One of the few lyrics in which it’s possible to read anything into occurs on ‘If You Were Here And I Was There’. “He ain’t coming back” Kilgour intones. Beyond that, make of it what you will.

But through-out Bobbie’s A Girl there’s always hints of sunshine among any possible gloom, as on ‘Spotlight’ where he sings he can “see a lot of love”. 

“Looks Like I’m Running Out’ features some alluring vibes instrumentation and, periodically,  fervent guitar breaks. The fervour intensifies on the almost six-minute-long instrumental ‘Ngapara’ (a small North Otago settlement, if you’re curious) which reiterates why Kilgour is one of the country’s most influential guitarists and the Heavy Eights a premium backing band. A deep, intense, ominous bass stalks along, drums crash, choppy, fuzzy guitars rattle and prowl. It wouldn’t be out of place on any of The Clean’s recordings either, that’s for sure.

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Thematically, Bobbie’s A Girl is a reflective, meditative, engaging work which coherently and maturely focuses on tough issues without stating the obvious or being patronising. Musically, it’s a joy, loaded with nifty, dazzling melodies always presented in an alluring, engaging manner.

It’s been a tough past few years for Kilgour. Like Shayne Carter wrote “David plays it cool”. While he’s been surfing at St Clair or St Kilda beaches, painting one of his quirky, abstract paintings or just generally pottering around his North East Valley house, he would’ve been able to ponder upon the loss of Peter and Helen, take stock and use it as fuel for his creativity. In doing so, he has certainly played it cool – the songs are serious, but never grim, while the lyrics are hints, not mawkish confessions. He may have lost two major figures in his life, but, importantly, he has not lost his sublime flair for the song.

David Kilgour and the Heavy Eights – Bobbie’s A Girl (Merge) is released on Friday, September 20.


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