One year later, Thelma Plum's Better In Blak remains integral to Australian pop's future
With a newly-arriving Anniversary Edition, one of Australia's most brilliant and cathartic records only grows more so.
Released in July 2019, Better In Blak was always going to be an important record to Australia's pop canon. It was a defining moment for its creator - Gamilaraay woman and Australian musical treasure Thelma Plum - that solidified the brilliance of someone amongst the country's most remarkable, seven years after her initial arrival. Furthermore, it was a defining moment for Australian music as an overarching self; the culmination of a steady rise of exciting, homegrown pop music bursting at a new peak that seemed to encapsulate its every charm better than anything put out before.
16 months following its release (or longer, if you count its singles), the story of Better In Blak is one just as well-known as it is courageous. She wrote an album prior to Better In Blak that didn't even have a confirmed title when it was scrapped entirely, after Thelma - thinking that the album no longer reflected her after a turbulent few years prior - attempted to create another album, one that better-encapsulated everything she's learnt about herself throughout this time.
The second record she'd write - Better In Blak - was one rich with catharticism, building upon a heavily-publicised few years for an album that celebrated what brought Thelma Plum through it: self-love, self-care and self-acceptance, celebrating identity - "which is me as an Aboriginal woman existing in Australia, and what that feels like" - and the strength and empowerment captured within celebrating your identity. Creating Better In Blak was therapy, and listening to it brings every ounce of that therapeutic journey to the forefront.
At the time, it was an album that felt like nothing else released within the Australian commercial music space. It was an empowering and deeply impactful listen that channelled every emotion - frustration, sadness, anger, fear, happiness, empowerment, nostalgia - into pop music that ranged from intimately vulnerable to high-flying and free, building upon a steadily-growing rise of off-kilter alt-pop within Australia to create a record that seemed to define the magic captured within it, and hows its peaks can well and truly soar.
There's also the fact that the record came from Thelma Plum too, and that many of the stories packed within Better In Blak come from experiences and reactions informed by her identity as an Indigenous woman. There's Homecoming Queen, a single about "how it felt growing up and not seeing anyone that looked like me on the TV or in the media." There's also the album's title-track Better In Blak - an empowering moment of self-validation that saw her dig into the strength of her Indigenous identity when faced with abuse against it - and the Dave Le'aupepe-featuring Love and War, a song whose deep, reflective emotions are informed by the Four Corners' Don Dale special which aired the night prior.
Better In Blak was released in a time where the life cycle of a record was hotly debated. For many musicians not amongst the world's biggest, an album release - something that you would sometimes build towards for years - was now a mere drop in the water amongst the over-saturated New Music Friday release schedule, something that would be pushed aside just a week later, when the next stream of records would come through.
Better In Blak, however, feels different - and that's something that's only become more apparent in the year following its release. Some 400-something days following the record's initial release, Better In Blak's imprint on Australian music has only become more visible. As much as it reflected a growth period for Australian pop music, it also helped define its future - just filter through the 'influences' playlists of almost any local pop musician we've talked about in the year since, and there's likely to be a Thelma Plum song within.
There's also Better In Blak's imprint on the music - and reception to music - by Indigenous Australian musicians more specifically. In the time since Better In Blak's arrival, several more pop musicians with Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds have broken through to the commercial masses (take Sycco and Tia Gostelow for two brilliant examples); their work often building from the same cathartic energy, with the same sense of therapy underlying their soaring hooks and swirling productions. It's a story that's become more and more present; different perspectives and backgrounds coming together as people continue to search for the feelings they found within Better In Blak's freeing embrace.
A deluxe anniversary edition of Better In Blak cements this further, with the addition of a new single - Body Do The Talking - building upon the success of the original album. Better In Blak was the highest-charting single by an Indigenous musician on triple j's Hottest 100, with its #9 charting in the 2019 countdown (and Thelma's quote that she hopes to not "keep that [record] for a long time," is likely to be true also, considering the aforementioned rise of acts like those we've mentioned). In Music Junkee's list of the Greatest Australian Songs of All Time, Better In Blak came third: "Plum packaged defiance, grace, and fierce determination in barely three minutes of delicious pop. It feels like a purr, but it packs an iron punch," they wrote.
Better In Blak was always going to be special; it'd be a lie to say anything but. However, to say that it's still amongst the greatest albums to come from within Australia in a long while almost 18 months post-release is a testament to Thelma Plum's ability to make impactful art at a time where the opposite seems to strive, and it's something worth celebrating every day.
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