Michael Cullen names his musical influences as such niche greats as Tom Waits, Nick Cave and even Leonard Cohen. It is easy to see in his new album that he attempts to emulate these legends in his new album. True Believer was released in October 2014 and sees Cullen fusing post punk, lounge jazz, muted Latin beats and junkyard country with great storytelling and lyrical imagery, just like his kooky forbears. The shoes of Waits and Nick Cave are most definitely difficult to fill but in his new album, Michael Cullen’s attempt comes closer than most.
Michael Cullen grew up in Sydney, Australia and became interested in post punk early on, playing in a number of bands in the late 80s and 90s. Tim Powles, drummer for the legendary Aussie post punk band The Church, began working with Cullen around this time as well, and the pair have been collaborating for over 20 years. Cullen names Powels as integral in helping produce True Believer and his first solo album, Love Transmitter. Another well-known post punk name, Danton Supple, who has worked with the likes of Morrissey and Coldplay, mixed True Believer. No easy task, as the album was recorded on tape rather than digitally.
As a sophomore effort, True Believer sees Michael Cullen starting to form a cohesive style. In previous groups and on his first album, his indie roots were showing perhaps too heavily, and sometimes there was a clash between Cullen’s post punk vocals and his retro junkyard country style of guitars. On True Believer, Cullen’s vocals match his music more, as the timbre of his voice is much lower and more gravely, a’la Tom Waits or another country/rock champion, Chris Rea. His lyrics also take a step up. Cullen’s lyrics tell vivid stories and create deeply emotive imagery. Combined with his sullen, deadpan vocal timbre Michael Cullen is not only forging his own style but coming within reaching distance of some of his idols.
A great example of this more robust, jazzy approach Michael Cullen is taking on True Believer is the album’s first single, Cha Cha Cha d’Amour. A new radio edit of this single was just released in May along with a video which drives home Michael Cullen’s lonely lounge lizard persona in no uncertain terms. Musically, Cullen’s vocals take on truly Waits-esque levels of raspiness, connoting a distant forlorn feeling which compliments the poignant story the lyrics tell. Similarly, Cullen’s wailing vintage guitar helps reinforce this dusty, lonely desert tone.
The imagery in Cha Cha Cha d’Amour’s corresponding video provides visual confirmation of the feelings Cullen’s music inspires. Cullen is gaunt and uncomfortable-looking in a gold suit, singing in a small, closed lounge. His only audience is the waitress who is closing up the place, and she looks equally forlorn.
Other highlights on this album are songs like Black Dog and Nothing Special. These songs show the indie post-punk feeling that Cullen cultivated in his past projects. His vocals take on a higher, more clear timbre here and the guitars a more rock-infused. On his last solo album, Cullen did not do as good a job of merging the post punk and lounge blues, but here the two compliment each other quite well. Other songs like Black Coffee and Cigarettes and I Walk Alone take on a tone similar to Cha Cha Cha d’Amour. Cullen combines hints of junkyard country, blues guitar and an ironic sense of loneliness in works such as these, and he is well on his way to emulating his indie idols.
Michael Cullen is a decent songwriter and has found a gift for storytelling which goes well with his lounge-singer-meets-punk persona. Footsteps of Nick Cave, Chris Rea and Tom Waits are difficult ones to follow, but Cullen has all the skills and tools to potentially make it work. As he continues to develop his style, he will no doubt earn his own cult following and perhaps even be seen as one of the indie lounge blues greats.
Review by Layla Klamt
Bandcamp.com: “Michael Cullen – True Believer”
Soundcloud.com: “Michael Cullen – True Believer”
Youtube.com: “Michael Cullen – Cha Cha Cha d’Amour”
Images provided courtest of Michael Cullen’s media kit.