To watch Dan Sultan hold an audience in the palm of his hand is to see a storyteller unafraid to lay it all out there: his troubles, desires and all those tales dragged from his life onto the stage. Ever since Sultan delivered his debut album, Homemade Biscuits, in 2006 at the age of 22, music lovers from all walks of life have found a home in his ability to bare his longings and his wounds, his rich and soulful voice spilling all sorts of guts and glory over memorable rock, roots and blues hooks.
Yet, there has also long been the sense that Sultan is the baton-holder of Australia’s greatest musical potential. Though swarms of festival crowds and a collection of NIMA (Album of the Year, Song of the Year) and ARIA (Best Rock Album) awards might suggest otherwise, there’s a lingering feeling that Sultan’s boundless talent and gift for storytelling have been building, striving to be truly realised by the man who contains them. Even as 2014’s Blackbird album cracked the top five of the ARIA Albums Chart and was certified gold, many were talking about what might come next.
On Killer, Sultan steps out as the songwriter he has always promised to become. From the erupting gospel chorus of first single ‘Hold It Together’ to the jazz-inflected lilt of ‘Should’ve Known’ and the classic FM pop nous of ‘Reaction’, Sultan’s fourth studio album makes itself known as the record on which Dan Sultan becomes that rarest of things: his own musician. By the time Killer reaches its closing track, ‘Easier Man’, Sultan delivering a painfully honest reflection on how his inner demons have played out, nothing short of a national treasure is unveiled.
Recorded with producer and long-time collaborator Jan Skubiszewski at his Way Of The Eagle studio in Melbourne, the album is also a sophisticated leap forward in production and instrumentation for Sultan. Where Blackbird, recorded in Nashville with rock producer Jacquire King, took an old-school-big-studio approach to soulful tunes, Killer pushes forward. The album introduces synthesisers and drum machines to lift powerful rhythms, and heightens emotions with gospel backing vocals that sound bigger than cathedral choirs.
“It’s been a long process to make this album, looking back on it all,” Sultan says. “I’ve spent a long time working on this record. With the writing, it was all about evolving. I wasn’t even necessarily thinking about the album as such, I was just writing for the sake of writing, and the album made itself known over time.”
Over the course of 2016, when he wasn’t touring and making appearances on tracks like A.B. Original’s ‘January 26’ (which was voted in at number 16 on triple j’s Hottest 100), Sultan was writing. When the year was out, he’d penned around 60 songs for Killer, many alone and a handful with his regular writing partners: Alex Burnett (of pop-rock group Sparkadia), Pip Norman and Ben Abraham. Even then the record wasn’t complete. As Sultan and Skubiszewski got to recording, Sultan continued to write – ‘Reaction’ and political missive ‘Kingdom’ were latecomers to the album’s track list.
Lyrically, Sultan is more reflective than on previous records, which have seemed to catch Sultan in the throes of growing up. There’s a broader weighing of life’s ups and downs present on Killer, an acknowledgement that troubles will find you, but that you are also never alone with them. It might be described as maturity. Certainly, along with a musical assuredness, the album is a portrait of a songwriter who knows himself better. “I’m not an easy man / I guess I’ll never be / But I was always yours,” Sultan sings on ‘Easier Man’.
“I think it comes from being a bit more grown up, personally,” Sultan says. “And that’s the idea, isn’t it? You get older and you get a bit wiser, and as a songwriter you’re always trying to get better and trying to push yourself.”
Songs like ‘Hold It Together’ and ‘Kingdom’ add a wider scope to Sultan’s lyrical oeuvre. While ‘Hold It Together’ takes a tale of a close friend and turns it into an affirming call for solidarity, ‘Kingdom’ is more politically cutting: “Tie my hands and break my bones / Take my children from my home,” the song starts before Sultan posits a sharp question: “Who’s coming with me to the kingdom?”
One of the record’s surprises is ‘Drover’, a song written from the perspective of an indigenous drover during the Wave Hill walk-off in 1966, a protest by pastoral workers in the Northern Territory over poor working conditions. The protest was immortalised in Paul Kelly’s classic ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’, and Sultan describes ‘Drover’ as a “prequel” to that song.
“It’s about the lead-up to the walk-off, about what it was like on the ground before the protest really kicked off,” he says. “The drover in the song has heard murmurs of a walk-off, murmurs of, ‘We’re going to protest and stand up for our land and stand up for our people’. I found it really interesting to write in that way. You know, as a writer, I think empathy is essential.”
To say that Killer is not only a portrait of a songwriter at a crucial moment in his craft and in his life, but also a portrait of a country at this moment in time, is not a bridge too far. Sultan’s fourth album is personal and far-reaching, a reflection on his life and a call for all our lives to pull closer together. It’s also an exciting and hook-filled journey of a record, one that urges us to look at who Dan Sultan is, right here, right now.