November 30, 2023

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Laura Jean: Amateurs Album Review

The cover of Laura Jean’s Amateurs features a portrait of the songwriter. It doesn’t stand out for any particular sense of style or grace; it’s a decent likeness, and that’s it—a painting that aspires to greatness but lands closer to alright-ness. On Amateurs, Jean seeks to understand why certain artists are deemed masters and others, such as the characters she sings about—cast members in small-town musicals and girls performing Crowded House covers at outdoor markets—amateurs. The painting on the cover captures every question Jean asks on the record: If the painter was paid for that portrait, does that make it good? Would it still be good if its artist was paid in nothing but the spiritual thrill of creation?

Jean has been releasing music under her own name for nearly 20 years but, for the most part, hasn’t found footing outside of her home country of Australia. Many of her albums are revered in music circles—in particular 2011’s swaggering, discordant folk-rock record A fool who’ll and the 2018 synth-pop turn Devotion—and she’s been nominated for a handful of regional awards. Lorde gushed about the Devotion single “Touchstone” on Twitter; Jenny Hval sang on Jean’s 2014 self-titled album and Jean returned the favor on The Practice of Love. Conceptually, Amateurs resides on a similar plane as Hval’s Menneskekollektivit, another record that inquires into the nature of art as a devotional practice.

But indie-rock stardom is notoriously illusory in Australia; there is no workhorse touring circuit to speak of, just small, wonderful, self-sustaining scenes held together by day jobs, government grants, and duct tape. Acclaim rarely reaches enough people to translate into record sales. Touring overseas is prohibitively expensive. So an artist like Jean, who has plaudits to spare, is stuck in a strange middle ground—established but still pursuing a second career (she’s studying to be a lawyer), well-known but not well-paid, working in the shadow of an ideal of success that’s further out of reach even than it is to her most ambitious U.S.- or UK-based peers.

Amateurs attempts to contend with this cowed legacy of artmaking in Australia: the idea that anyone engaged in serious art may be doomed to do it for love alone. Musically, Jean is returning to folk—not exactly the spare, quiet kind on Laura Jean or the drunken howl of A fool who’ll, but a style that suggests the blushing, diaristic songs of Devotion redone with more organic materials. Amateurs is unwieldy but graceful and often quite formally challenging, even as it foregrounds open-mic night staples like upright piano and heavily strummed acoustic.

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