Maybe we all have missing pieces. Maybe life, in its seemingly endless procession of days, strips things away until it feels like we’re just shadows slipping under closed doors into the next world. Maybe we lose our innocence, our wonder, our beliefs. Maybe we lose friends, lovers, our sense of self. Do we become a little bit less with every loss, or do we simply shake off the chains attaching us to this life? Do we hide our hurts or wear them proudly?
Missing pieces, on display for all to see, make up the core of HTRK’s Psychic 9-5 Club. This brilliant new album, out now on Ghostly International, obscures while it reveals, hurts while it heals and speaks truth in exclusionary details. The name HTRK itself is shorthand for HATEROCK or Hate Rock Trio, although those handles become less obvious with every release from this Australian trio-turned-duo, and on Psychic 9-5 Club, their third album, the missing letters could stand for any number of losses that the group has experienced since they formed in 2003.
The “A” that went missing from their name could easily stand for “Aggression,” an element that fueled the full-on sarcastic assault of the band’s 2008 single “HA,” and then simmered down to a rumbling menace on their 2011 second album Work (work, work). On the former, singer Jonnine Standish delivered one-liners like “You’re girlfriend’s prettier than mine” backed by the repeated refrain of “Ha, ha, ha,” while guitarist Nigel Yang and bassist Sean Stewart raged at spiky Birthday Party-esque post-punk volumes. (Fitting, as that album was recorded by the Birthday Party’s Rowland S. Howard.) On the latter, they came home from the Birthday Party and took off all their clothes to stay awake all night, making the kind of sensual racket that evokes the point in horror movies where the sex is ending but the killing hasn’t started yet. That album shed more than aggression, though. Tragically, Sean Stewart took his own life before the completion of Work (work, work) and, though his bass is all over the record, his vitality is gone. That album was the sound of a band in mourning, a band working at the heavy business of grief.
The missing “E” in HTRK could easily stand for “Explanation” or “Explicit.” The lyrics on Psychic 9-5 conjure imagery, imply context. Nothing is overt, nothing is spelled out. On “Give It Up” and “Love Is Distraction,” Standish sings alternately about how she’s “gonna love you much better” and about how “love is distraction from your life,” claiming “we won’t evolve because of it.” The deep ambivalence in her lyrics and delivery omit intention, leaving each listener a meditation on the value of love in a life.
Further obscuring the intentions, Standish sings in a delicate, detached tenor. Her voice shows care. It demonstrates a deep commitment to HTRK’s mission. But she doesn’t tell you what the mission is.
Also, her voice doesn’t leave a strong connotation of gender. Much like the L.A. band HEALTH, HTRK comes across as neither sexless nor hermaphroditic. Instead, they embody an idealized third gender. On “The Body You Deserve,” Standish sings:
New passport acquired
For the new, blue world
Your first steps outside, with confidence
I’ve fallen in love
In love with a new gender
Far from gender dysphoria, many of the songs on this record celebrate a kind of androgyny euphoria.
The missing “O” and missing “C” in HTRK? Well, they could stand for anything, really. The “O” could be a great mouth opening in a grief-stricken wail as the sea (or “the C”) rears back to swallow up us all. Or it could be the ground opening in an O-shaped sinkhole of loneliness for all to “see.” But these grand gestures of melodrama are absent here. There’s no crying, no tearing out of hair. Psychic 9-5 Club finds a band working quietly at processing grief, the way we all do when there are truly pieces missing, pieces that will never come back.
It’s an album that speaks its own mortality in the voice of its singer and carries on beautifully. With grace and poise. Even with something approaching hope in fatalism. Because things will keep disappearing. Pieces will continue to go missing. Next time, we might get a record from HTK or even HK. Hopefully, it will bear some of the trademarks of Psychic 9-5 Club, maybe retaining the soothing pulse of the gently panning keyboards or Standish’s assured narration, stranded without another sound. As it stands, we see them in a perfect moment, caught somewhere between the full promise of youth and the slow, lonely walk to the end of the street.