Melody & Poetics Abound in Michael Cullen’s “True Believer”

Coming at us straight from Australia is singer/songwriter Michael Cullen, with his latest nine-track album titled True Believer. This tested talent has been a member of a number of Sydney-based bands since the 1980’s including such bands as No Man’s Land, The Hardheads and Watershed. Cullen handles both the vocals and instrumentals on his newest album (an impressive feat) opting to for good old fashioned tape machines, tube microphones, and other analogue equipment.

The first track on the album is “Black Dog”, in which we are introduced to Cullen’s charming baritone voice. He opens with spoken word, which was an interesting surprise, coupled with a curious ambiance summoned up by the song’s unnerving percussion and background vocals. An even bigger surprise was that Cullen did not end up singing anywhere on the track. Immediately afterwards, Cullen pulls a complete 180 with the upbeat “Believer” which still has the same curiously spooky vibe, this time led by the old organ. At this point, I’m wondering when Cullen will break into song (though there were hints of his vocal ability in this one).

Finally, Cullen begins “Nothing Special” singing about life and love, in an interesting track which showcases his layered, raspy singing and 80’s mod pop vibe. This is followed by “Black Coffee and Cigarettes” in which our spoken word artist is singing once again, though it could be argued that the track still slows down enough to be poetry, rather than song. At this point, it’s difficult to tell whether the poetry helps or hurts, just that it’s an interesting change of pace to see an artist freely alternate between the two in their songs.

In “Damaged”, the tempo slows down once again, and Cullen’s voice goes down along with it. He drops to a lower octave and fits snugly into the melancholy vibe he tries to establish on the track. The guiding line is: “I’m free, but you’re still bitter”.

The next track is titled “Cha Cha Cha d’Amour”, a name which got me excited to see what Cullen was going to do with it. It was startling to hear that, although upbeat, it still had the familiar unnerving sound which has been a running theme in most of the album’s tracks so far. The final three songs in the album also feature many of the same emotions and instruments showcased by Cullen earlier in True Believer, but “Broken Horses” is a different beast altogether. The drumming is erratic, the vocals don’t slowdown in order to make way for poetic spoken word, and the beat is wild and energetic. As a final song, it really does a great job pointing towards the horizon at the potential and range Michael Cullen still has.

True Believer is an interesting album. Although I’ve used that word more times than I would like in this review, I feel that it is the only appropriate word to describe such an experience. Michael Cullen showcases in this album that he is more than just a singer, more than just a poet, but some exciting new thing in between. There is an element of mystery and intrigue which surrounds every track that queues up on the album, a feeling many artists wish for but cannot elicit from their listeners. If you’re also up for something “interesting”, definitely give Cullen’s album a well-deserved listen.

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