The Sleepy Jackson, Mean Fiddler, London

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The Independent Culture

Luke Steele writes love songs with an undertow, an obscure fatalism that drags at their sunny pop surfaces. It's what makes Lovers, the acclaimed album by his band The Sleepy Jackson, so quietly beguiling, as brazenly Beatlesque guitar lines give way to folky introspection, a conviction that love is unfair and hurts, and even that lovers can disappear and die. Such strong emotions have been flung up by Steele's extreme life, drunkenly smashing his way through countless Aussie bars in his band's first incarnation, before finding peace in Christianity.

Sadly, no such power, higher or otherwise, follows him on stage. Steele is a weirdly striking figure, with his Eighties-style moustache, and an almost masked air of desocialised withdrawal, a smothered charisma that suits his wounded songs. But what's far more apparent is how much he and his band have come here to rock, at pitiless length. Even the George Harrison-like "Good Dancers" sees Steele slamming his guitar on his knee to squeeze out a few extra notes, before screaming, "Thank you, LON-DON", with no irony.

Nothing, though, prepares me for the band's descent, midway through one of several bar-room boogies, into a seemingly endless prog-rock limbo. Steele abandons another set of lyrics about heartbreak for would-be eerie, repetitive murmurs, while the drummer clambers on to the rim of his kit, stares out at us enigmatically, then sheepishly sits back down again. Such incompetent, dissipated drama continues with aimless shrieks and bellows. For the first time I wish I was watching Yes, who at least drone indefinitely with gusto.

There is some relief either side of this, in the creepily beautiful ballad "Miniskirt", and a sequence of songs with Steele solo on acoustic guitar, which start to locate his work's woozy heartbeat. When he gets to the implacable "Acid In My Heart" - written to encourage his parents to split up - I briefly remember how good he can be. But a song later, the sight of people in the front row standing still sipping beer as The Sleepy Jackson launch into more bar-room rock bluster proves how woefully short they're falling.

When Steele decides to further disrupt their failing momentum with more pointless, discordant strums, then total, stretched-out silence, the cat-calls that fill the void show the crowd's patience has worn paper thin.

"How's everyone goin', anyway?" Steele asks unwisely, a few haphazard power chords later, and the scattered whoops are somehow worse than no response at all. It's like watching a comedian die slowly on stage. Except that really, this was more like suicide.

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