In 2009, the long-running Australian group Dirty Three played a handful of U.S. shows, joined for some of them on piano by longtime cohort Nick Cave. These sprawling, emotionally taxing, violin-driven sets were incredibly memorable, and not just for musical reasons. Violinist Warren Ellis’s unhinged stage banter was the sort of thing that stayed lodged in your brain for years. (Introducing one song at Bowery Ballroom: “This song…is about a Christmas… where Santa… fucks…everybody.”) Two years later came news of a new album, and now Toward the Low Sun has arrived, their first since 2005’s Cinders (and their first entirely instrumental effort since 2003’s She Has No Strings Apollo.)
That isn’t to say that the group hasn’t been busy in the intervening years: Ellis in particular has maintained an especially high profile as a member of the Bad Seeds and Grinderman. He’s also worked with Cave on a number of film scores, from documentaries largely unseen in the States to prestigious films like The Road and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. (The collection White Lunar provides a fine overview of the duo’s work in this realm.) It’s entirely possible—and probably likely—that at least a few people hearing Toward the Low Sun are doing so knowing Ellis best as a collaborator of Cave’s, and are encountering his band for the first time.
The trio may be aware of this. Toward the Low Sun opens noisily, Mick Turner’s gritty guitar line bubbling in frenzied repetition, ultimately joining with violin and drums and then fading away. It’s a jarring reassurance that this trio hasn’t settled down, and is more than willing to bristle if necessary. Alternately: it’s a warning that this album won’t serve as a voyage into the pastoral.
The songs heard on this album don’t have the ecstatic length displayed on albums like Whatever You Love You Are and Ocean Songs, yet they achieve much of the same majesty and reach. “Ashen Snow,” in which Ellis’s melody turns into something heartrending over its duration, is particularly striking. Elsewhere, as on “Rising Below,” the trio turns to a frenzied, furious clatter. Alternately: this is a Dirty Three album.
Their sound is distinctive and nearly impossible to clarify; for all that their music touches on the beautiful, even on the transcendent, there’s a fundamental messiness to it, a steadfast refusal to be polite. And for all of those moments of bliss, there are others that are equally cacophonous; it’s impossible to listen to one or the other without being aware that its sonic opposite looms. They’ve been away for a while, but this album remains vibrant, unpredictable, untethered—in other words, it’s a work that’s wholly alive.