12.08.2019

A Kirin J Callinan show is like attending an eccentric art exhibition and choosing your own path

Croxton Bandroom
1 / 3
Words by Augustus Welby
Photography by David Harris

The performance was up for total interpretation.

I’ve spent hundreds of words trying to encapsulate Kirin J Callinan’s artistry over the last half dozen years. Perhaps it’s a futile exercise, but the attempt itself is an act of expression – rarely do you critique an artist’s work abstractly; it’s about how it resonates with you.

Callinan’s work is often met with laughter, which is either the desired effect or an agreeable consequence of his aslant creativity. But the laughter also arises in response to the tension the artist actively occasions. Past live shows have bordered on bad taste, accommodating uncomfortable silences and dubious technical glitches. He dances like Eddie the Eagle in the middle of a fencing bout and carries a rucksack of ridiculous outfits and comic facial expressions.

In spite of all this, I’ve never thought of Callinan as a comedy act. However, in the wake of his 2017 single ‘Big Enough’ becoming a viral meme, he’s reached a whole new audience, principally drawn in by the comedy.

Is this a problem? An artist like Callinan – an irreverent fuser of righteous originality and exaggerated gimcrack – is bound to be misunderstood and possibly represents something different for each of his followers and detractors. But it did make you wonder what the audience was here for; which Kirin they wanted to see.

Calls for Callinan to remove his clothing began as soon as he walked onstage. Disrobing is a signature move and so basically assured, but in the face of such pressure, the songwriter snapped that he’d be less inclined to do so if people kept on asking – he did get most of the way there, though.

That said, the majority of the crowd were genuine fans. ‘The Homosexual’ and ‘You Weren’t in Love With Me’, from Callinan’s new covers-centric LP, Return to Center, were as warmly received as selections from his 2013 debut, Embracism, and 2017 breakthrough, Bravado. This tour’s being conducted without his regular band and so a lot of the noise came from a backing track. No one seemed to mind too much and it guaranteed Callinan was the number one focus.

His proclivity towards subversive sounds and uncomfortable deviations can somewhat obscure the quality of his singing voice. His vocals were a standout feature of the show, particularly during his rousing version of The Waterboys’ ‘The Whole of the Moon’ and the a cappella encore of ‘S. A. D.’

To say that nothing particularly out of the ordinary occurred would imply having become immune to Callinan’s singular phenomenology. But for the most part, the show consisted of a solo performer delivering a set of songs that illuminated what makes them unique. It was funny, sure – and ‘Big Enough’ impacted like an anthem – but it was also so much more than that.