3 Jun 2018

New Horizons: Sleepwalking with Jonathan Bree

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 3 June 2018

William Dart has a listen to Aucklander Jonathan Bree's third solo album Sleepwalking, which is out Friday, June 8th.

Jonathan Bree performing at the Other's Way Festival 2017

Jonathan Bree performing at the Other's Way Festival 2017 Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Jonathan Bree appears on the cover of his new album Sleepwalking. That’s the record’s title, but perhaps he is indeed sleepwalking, or in some other realm of consciousness, his face covered with the sort of mask that might suggest nefarious activities are about to be undertaken.

The album artwork for Jonathan Bree's Sleepwalking

The album artwork for Jonathan Bree's Sleepwalking Photo: Supplied

Or perhaps, more innocently, he’s morphing into a 2018 edition of The Invisible Man.

This ploy has been carried through onto his recent videos, in which not only Bree but his whole band is masked up. It's a ploy that some are saying was boldly pinched by St Vincent in one of her recent concerts. And you can read all about it in a recent post on The Spinoff, laid out at some length by Chelsea Nikkel.

One thing is for real, masks or no masks. There’s a new soul man at work on this new album, a soul man with barbs to prick any excess mellowfication. Sleepwalker is a cycle of love songs from a rather sinister troubadour.

The first single from the album is the song 'You're So Cool', in which Bree plays Erich von Stroheim to Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. There’s more class bitterness here and the focus of the song is harrowing as it centres in, cast around one of the album’s most powerful instrumentals. An instrumental which takes us, as a kind of side trip, to the Land of the Raga.

There’s some sort of hypnosis being perpetrated in Jonathan Bree’s Sleepwalker, as you find yourself lured into the life and psyche of its central anti-hero. And it doesn’t relinquish its grip through the entire dramatic line that its eleven songs pursue.

Despair deepens and the album ends with a bleak and expletive-laden finale. Life is a matter of survival of the dimmest, Bree concludes. When he laments that the coming together of two sophisticated monkeys won’t be celebrated in poetry or symphony, it's both touching and maybe significant that “symphony” comes out as “sym-phoney”.

Let’s backtrack then to a song in which hope has not quite yet been dashed. This is despite Chelsea Nikkel's almost frightening kisses that introduce the song Valentine, along with Bree’s admission that he’s the runt she was born to live with and they’ll be struggling pitifully along together.

Doubts, disappointment, despair and dejection. They’re all there, but wrapped up in such an ironically gorgeous package, you’d hardly know it. Although I suspect for some, the sorrows will cut even more deeply.

Bree's back catalogue

Let's not forget the past aural pleasures lavished on us by The Brunettes, that ear-friendly musical twosome of Bree and Heather Mansfield. Picking a favourite is nigh impossible so let’s go for the shy, sly politics of 'Hulk is Hulk'.

The appearance of this new album from Bree has set me off scurrying down Memory Lane, or should that be 'Primrose Path', which happens to be the title of his very first solo venture back in 2013.

While elsewhere on the album he sings of being bored in malls, here he’s indulging a melancholic bent that sets a sociopath loose in a late, late nightclub. All to a tune so regular it could almost be a Sunday school hymn.

Looking over the cover images of Jonathan Bree’s three albums you can sense a certain journey being taken. They’re all portraits of the singer and the first, here on The Primrose Path, has him wide-eyed and startled, in severe black turtle-top, with the “primrose path” looking more like a hard-cropped curve of Michael Smither stones.

Two years later, for his second album, A Little Night Music, he’s an orchestral maestro, baton in hand.

A Little Night Music was an ambitious project for Bree. Its maestro cover went along with the singer’s interest in some of the things that we hear in our concert halls, as well as musical procedures that went well beyond the decorative presence of a string quartet.

A song like 'Murder' had him taking a bit of a harmonic adventure, constructed around the unpredictable succession of chords in Chelsea Nikkel’s opening piano solo. The progressions are so testing that you sense the singer hesitating at one point. But then Jonathan Bree’s tunes are always a little like that, flowing around whatever musical underlay there is, exploring the territory with leaps, bounds and very idiosyncratic scansion.

Perhaps Ella Smith’s soprano is another tag — for Pink Floyd’s 'The Great Gig in the Sky'.  But there’s more to come when those chords return over twitchy beats, with a final shivery verse.

Listen to these tracks and several more by clicking on the 'Listen' link at the top of the page.

Music Details

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
Album title
(Label)

'Hulk is Hulk' (Bree) – The Brunettes
When Ice Met Cream
(Lil Chief)

'The Primrose Path' (Bree) – Jonathan Bree
The Primrose Path
(Lil Chief)

'Laptop' (Bree) – Jonathan Bree
The Primrose Path
(Lil Chief)

'Overture' (Bree) – Jonathan Bree
A Little Night Music
(Lil Chief)

'Murder' (Bree) – Jonathan Bree
A Little Night Music
(Lil Chief)

'Prelude' (Bree) – Jonathan Bree
A Little Night Music
(Lil Chief)

'Sleepwalking' (Bree) – Jonathan Bree
Sleepwalking
(Lil Chief)

'You’re So Cool' (Bree) – Jonathan Bree
Sleepwalking
(Lil Chief)

'Characters' (Bree) – Jonathan Bree
Sleepwalking
(Lil Chief)

'Roller Disco' (Bree) – Jonathan Bree
Sleepwalking
(Lil Chief)

'Plucking Petals' (Bree) – Jonathan Bree
Sleepwalking
(Lil Chief)

'Valentine' (Bree) – Jonathan Bree
Sleepwalking
(Lil Chief)