“Big black train coming down the track,” is the first line Bruce Springsteen sings on his 20th studio album, a vision of looming mortality on the sombre One Minute You’re Here he makes explicit. But as one of rock music’s iconic figures, the 71-year-old has a readymade antidote: the E Street Band. Springsteen’s storied supporting cast back him up for the first time on record since 2014’s High Hopes, and the bond is as supple and muscular as ever, with Roy Bittan’s piano the connective tissue on the joyful title track and a succession of guitar-led crescendos elevating Burnin’ Train. Music as a shared spiritual experience is a recurring theme on an album that otherwise wrestles with personal fractures, reaching a congregative peak on the gorgeously weathered House of a Thousand Guitars. A trio of tracks date from the early ’70s, and with their wordiness and flashes of harmonica revisit Springsteen’s arrival five decades ago as the next Bob Dylan. They’re hardly lost gems, but hearing them updated alongside a stomping new rave-up such as Ghosts is a reminder that their writer’s inclusive spirit can outrun any big black train. CRAIG MATHIESON
The Modern Congress
UNTIL TOMORROW (timrollinson.com)
Just as we eat comfort food, we listen to comfort music – usually sounds we know and love. Remarkably enough, composer, guitarist and producer Tim Rollinson can make music that fulfils this function straight out of the box. His Modern Congress project’s third album should theoretically be the exact opposite of that, given its digital beats, chilled-out core and steel-and-glass exterior. But countering this is Rollinson’s keen aesthetic sense for sounds that instantly engage. Truism, with its clean jazz guitar draped over a backdrop of keys, bass and quite “real”-sounding drums, takes us back to his days with acid-jazz darlings Dig. Increasing the intimacy is the on-mike singing of Lauren Dawes, Pat Powell, Tayanita Robertson and Laura Brooker, each of whom has brewed lyrics to ride on Rollinson’s melodies. Powell’s double-tracked Dark Horse is a highlight, enhanced by exotic contributions from saxophonist Rick Robertson and thickened by bassist Alex Hewetson. Rollinson’s clarity of intent is such that none of his 10 tracks has been suffocated by overproduction: they sound cool and warm all at once – which is comforting. JOHN SHAND
HEY CLOCKFACE (Concord)
A lot of people – and this reviewer pleads guilty – want Elvis Costello to remain stuck in amber circa 1977-1983. It’s unfair, of course. The knock-kneed motormouth punched out a remarkable run of records that grew out of punk but were way too smart to be confined by it. From collaborating with Burt Bacharach to writing a ballet score, he’s always thumbed his nose at straitjackets. Recorded in Helsinki, Paris and New York, Hey Clockface is a sometimes disjointed experience. No Flag uses Tom Waits-ian junkyard percussion and distortion to drive sneering lines such as, “No God for the damn that I don’t give”; Byline is a gorgeously wrought kiss-off ballad where old letters house painful memories. On the title track’s show-tune shadings, he does his best imitation of his old hero Randy Newman, while the thump-and-crunch of Hetty O’Hara Confidential crosses Dylan-esque syntax with rap-like delivery. Between the blooms there are weeds: blousy spoken-word poetry over brooding orchestration, a convoluted ballad or two where his voice cracks and creaks. But even when he fails to take flight, he continues to avoid being pinned down. BARRY DIVOLA
This Is the Kit
OFF OFF ON (Rough Trade)
Kate Stables and her folk-rock band This Is the Kit, which can perform as anything from a duo to a larger band, is represented on their fifth studio album by Rozi Plain, Neil Smith, Jesse Vernon and Jamie Whitby-Coles, with Stables taking centre stage. Whether she’s drilling into the anxieties of existential dread on frenzied compositions (This Is What You Did) or extolling the virtues of perseverance in the face of disaster (Keep Going), her mellifluous vocals soften the blow of her grim observations. The Paris-based, British-born artist deals in macabre emotions. It’s a trait that makes her a magnetic lyricist, but the record is more than an exercise in doom and gloom. Lighter moments like Slider, Shinbone Soap and Started Again showcase the band, which offers jangling guitar riffs, bright percussion and soothing melodies. Case in point is Was Magician, Stables’ down-tempo ode to the undervalued magic that children possess. “Wasn’t ready, slower learner,” she coos, “But the power, was in her.” And it’s in this kind of storytelling, combining the abstract metaphors of folk with the poetry of country, that the record shines. KISH LAL
Barry Divola is a journalist and author who specialises in music, popular culture, the arts, podcasts and travel.
Craig Mathieson is a TV, film and music writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
John Shand has written about music and theatre since 1981 in more than 30 publications, including for Fairfax Media since 1993. He is also a playwright, author, poet, librettist, drummer and winner of the 2017 Walkley Arts Journalism Award