Leave it to Cleaver
David McCormack and the Polaroids' new album announces itself boldly. It's called The Truth About Love. Right there on the cover, above the clean, sharp white letters of that declaratory title, there's a picture of a meat cleaver.
McCormack has always been fond of a wry gag, true, but surely this is a dark one. Some readers might see an allusion to castration in the cover or perhaps the emasculating attributes of love. The metaphor of dismemberment, or at least pain, seems unavoidable.
The songs don't dispel the pessimism, either. McCormack sings that love is from "a can of poison in the water". Elsewhere, he laments: "Though it seems pretty good right now/One day it will all go sour."
What's going on? It looks like the perennially unserious McCormack is getting all cynical in his old age. The man who rose to fame in the '90s at the helm of Brisbane's much-loved Custard has made some undeniably gloomy songs about love and relationships.
"There's a couple [of pessimistic songs] on there," he says. "I think I've always been a little bit cynical. But the album isn't completely me; it's often me putting myself in other roles, other characters.
"Like when I say, 'If you leave me, I will hunt you down and kill you [in the song of the same name]', it's not necessarily me saying that. But I'm always interested in exploring those ideas."
For the record, McCormack says he imagined his friend Jeremy Saunder's cleaver artwork to refer to "something about cutting your own heart out, or something. I didn't think of the castration angle before." He pauses thoughtfully. "But I'm sure some people will."
Yet The Truth About Love is far from a miserable listen thanks to McCormack's characteristic laconic delivery, pop sensibilities and subtle humour. The title track is a Flaming Lips-style swelling pop song, all bright and shimmering strings. Meanwhile, I'm Going to Execute Yr Ex-Boyfriend is reminiscent of Custard's best.
Plus it's safe to challenge any Australian songwriter to squeeze a line more fiddly than "warmly received anti-revolutionary (in the sense of not revolutionary), I can leave you out", into a gently rollicking country jaunt. McCormack pulls off the feat with implausible success on Who Could You Love?
"I wanted to have an album that was quite cynical and dark and murderous in a way, but overall it sounds quite up and positive, because I do like pop songs," he says.
"My favourite pop songs are the ones that sound beautiful on the surface, but if you listen to the lyrics and to what they're saying underneath they can sound almost sinister. That's the balance."
The Truth About Love took about a year to complete. It involved various studios and producers: Wayne Connolly, Magoo, Andrew Lancaster, who also plays guitar in the Polaroids, and McCormack. This time frame was in sharp contrast to the Polaroids' first record, 2002's Candy, which took a grand total of six days to record and mix.
"I guess I'm pretty sure it's the record I wanted to make because we took so long on it," he says. "Having said that, there was a lot of input from so many other people, which I've enjoyed as well."
He's not exactly a control freak, then?
"No, not really," McCormack says. "If I really don't like something, I'll passive-aggressively, in some sort of very immature way, make sure it doesn't happen again. But I'm not really a strong personality in that respect. Maybe I should be."
McCormack makes his living from various musical projects alongside his solo work.
"If I only did the Polaroids stuff, I'd be in a lot of trouble," he says. "And it's good to keep many irons in the fire. Doing all these different types of music gives me some sort of knowledge that I can apply to my love, which is writing these songs."
Among those other projects are film and theatre composition work. McCormack and Lancaster teamed up with Anthony Partos to write the music for the Australian film Garage Days in 2002.
More recently, the pair created the music for the Sydney Theatre Company's production of Seneca's Thyestes, a typically cheery bloodbath of a Greek tragedy in which King Atreus slaughters his nephews and feeds them to their unknowing father.
Watching that performance makes me a bit worried for McCormack - particularly in light of the meat clever on the album sleeve.
"Hmm," he says. "It's unrelated happenstance. It is a bit of a coincidence. But don't worry about me, I'm all right."