“Lately I’ve been trying to sort myself out,” confesses Wergaia / Wemba Wemba woman Alice Skye midway through her second album. That single line, from the song ‘Grand Ideas’, could serve as the thesis statement for ‘I Feel Better But I Don’t Feel Good’, a diaristic chronicle of the Melbourne songwriter’s wide-reaching latticework of anxieties.
Also in the running is this relatable sense of self-defeat from the opening ‘Stay In Bed’: “My friends don’t seem to like me / I have bad social anxiety / I’m probably not the best to go on dates with.” Of course, for the millions of Australians in midwinter lockdown, Skye’s reluctance to leave her bed is totally understandable.
But if such downcast sentiments might prepare us for a one-note listening experience, in her songs Skye also expertly fleshes out heartening themes of resilience and even levity. During ‘Grand Ideas’ alone, she voices her desire to escape her depressed state after dryly repeating textbook advice to cut down on screen time and keep active outdoors. All the while, dreamy drums, guitar and keyboards mingle slowly around her.
That satisfying instrumentation can be credited in part to Skye’s bandmates and childhood friends, guitarist Sam King and drummer Kane King, and to producer Jen Cloher, who as a solo artist is a veteran of emotionally frank indie rock. It sets this album apart from Skye’s 2018 debut ‘Friends With Feelings’; on that record Skye’s voice was tentative and restrained over more piano-led (or even folky) arrangements.
While early Skye songs like ‘Poetry By Text’ and ‘Melbourne’ foreshadowed the open-hearted revelations here, her soft, warmly shaded voice – by turns closely confiding and dramatically leaping – is used to much stronger effect this time around, as is her piano and keyboard playing.
No wonder that by the age of 25, Skye has already sung on tracks by Moby and Midnight Oil – and with the latter on tour. Then again, her preternatural wisdom gets questioned during ‘Homesickness’, a melancholy duet with Perth’s Jacob Diamond. Skye seems somewhat suspicious of the idea that sadness can make someone seem “much older … mature thanks to the trauma”. Such damning understatement is all over this record, including the title track’s simple kiss-off to its diminished subject: “You used to make me smile.”
In Skye’s songs, acts of surrender are often contrasted with defiant or even triumphant musical turns. Describing Skye’s desire to shed her skin and start a new life elsewhere, ‘Grand Ideas’ manages an upbeat chorus about feeling a loss of control. Likewise, ‘Everything Is Great’ announces itself with a chugging rock hook before Skye laments the blurred lines between friendship and romance with simmering passion, while the lyrically scathing ‘Party Tricks’ pairs resounding guitar distortion and more pronounced drumming for a hard-earned catharsis.
By contrast, on the closing ‘Wurega Djalin’, Skye return to the sombre piano chords of her first album, singing in Wergaia language and pondering “being the right kind of Aboriginal person for consumption”. It recalls a gorgeous moment earlier on the record in ‘Hot Car’, where Skye references picking flowers “in a garden of my great aunty” and occupying the same land as past generations of her people: “I think of the people before me / We didn’t share time but we share this great view.” That tender, wishful sense of belonging comes up once more in the nurturing domestic atmosphere of the cover painting by Aretha Brown.
Rich with personal meaning, Skye’s songs flex an equally notable streak of self-awareness. After mocking the stupid questions she poses to online search engines on ‘Browser History’, she lightens the mood with her most self-deprecating lyrics to date: “I guess I’ll die alone / Maybe that’s a bit dramatic / That’s just one of my bad habits.” Ribbing herself for the exact vulnerabilities she’s sharing with the world, Skye wrings another layered, inspiring moment of reflection out of her conflicting needs. If paying such close attention to her internal drama yields songs as penetrating and powerful as these, Skye should go right on doing it.
- Release date: July 23
- Record label: Bad Apples Music