Ever since Dirty Three nailed it fifteen years ago on Horse Stories, they have had to struggle with the burden of what next? The elements of their sound are pretty simple; Warren Ellis’s violin emotes like a gypsy crying as he collapses at the end of a manic phase, Jim White’s brushed drums evoke the motion of deep-ocean swells, and guitarist Mick Turner holds it all together with the understated discretion of a Mafia boss’s chauffeur. Post-Horse Stories, they’ve played ’em short and long, invited female singers to coo over the top, and overdubbed a feather quilt-thick blanket of extra strings over the top of their tunes, and it all still comes out sounding like Dirty Three.
On Toward the Low Sun, the trio’s first album in a half dozen years, they keep on tampering with the formula in small ways. There’s no fiddle at all on “Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone,” but stately piano chords tug at the tear ducts just as effectively. Likewise, mellotron strings try to elbow aside the violin on “Ashen Snow” and a harmonica mingles with the rustic strumming on “Moon On The Land,” but the change is about as drastic as swapping your old Levi’s jacket for a new one. And for each wrinkle, there’s a tune like “The Pier” or “Rising Below” that could have turned up on any Dirty Three record over the past couple decades.
Ellis does bring a bit of the midlife-crisis agro that he’s indulged with Grinderman, and Turner matches him blurt for blat while White sprints like he’s got a bus to catch on opener “Furnace Skies.” But even at double speed, the Three can’t thrash out or outrun the melancholy that’s as much a part of their music as the taste of peat is a part of fine Scotch. And really, why should they? Dirty Three have always been more about a sound and a sentiment, and they deliver both quite successfully here. If you’re bored with what they do, this won’t change your mind, but if you’re ready for another round, it’s reliably strong stuff.