Watching Tash Sultana perform live is a spiritual experience. Sultana is known for performing solo, using various loop and delay pedals to craft psychedelic jam-style soul-pop songs. It’s hard to fathom how an artist whose songs build so slowly, meandering through kaleidoscopic guitar riffs, can achieve such mainstream success. It’s hard to fathom until you hear it.
Their breakout hit ‘Jungle’ was posted to YouTube in 2016, and has since garnered almost 100 million views. It’s the energy Sultana imbues into their performance that really hooks you, and the ‘Jungle’ video showcases their ability to command the lively spirit of a song. Sultana is in many ways a musical virtuoso, with the ability to play over 20 instruments including guitar, bass, piano, trumpet, flute, percussion, and saxophone. But Sultana plays these instruments like they’re merely an extension of their body, looking effortless and elated while doing so.
Many artists who are able to command their songs in such a mystical way run into difficulty translating that energy into a studio album. Sultana didn’t struggle with that dilemma until their career was already established, releasing their debut album ‘Flow State’ in 2018 after a sold-out tour. ‘Flow State’ was a highly anticipated album amongst fans and critics and received accolades for its ability to harness Sultana’s roaming and constantly building sound while maintaining the dazzling essence of their live performance. This success prompted Sultana to go on a grueling world tour, leaving the artist burnt out and yearning to slow down.
It was from this exhaustion and retreat that ‘Terra Firma’ was born. This album is just as lush as Sultana’s past records, but much more intimate. Tash truly slows down on this record, leaning into the quiet comfort found in turning to family, gardening, and surfing in Australia during their tour break. ‘Terra Firma’ maintains Sultana’s instrumental opulence but with a more mature and seasoned perspective that is flecked with vulnerability.
The album’s opening track, “Musk” begins with a twinkling synth, building with the additions of snaps and bass until it crests upon a wavering guitar giving way to the atmospheric breakdown. The rise and fall of the song is wavelike, with each new instrument enveloping you further in the music. It’s a hypnotic opener, that primes listeners to immerse themselves in the forthcoming tracks. Sultana’s ability to create tension and release in a song is really put on display here.
The second track “Crop Circles” features Sultana’s soaring breakthrough into their upper register, framing the John Mayer-esque R&B groove. This track is definitely a standout on the record for it’s rhythm guitar driven instrumentation and cathartic vocals.
“Greed” demonstrates Sultana’s poignant songwriting. The track takes an interesting perspective on money-driven culture, saying that money is ultimately a way to mask your insecurities, and the more of it you have, the more you use it to hide away the vulnerable parts of yourself. Songs like these on ‘Terra Firma’ demonstrate Sultana’s unique voice and poignant perspective. When their lyricism comes through on these tracks, it reminds you not to get too lost in the hypnotic nature of the music.
“Maybe You’ve Changed” is Sultana’s take on a piano ballad which also showcases their evolving songwriting. Throughout the song, they reference the ways in which they’ve lost a connection to their physical form, becoming disembodied amidst the wild ride of superstardom. They sing, “maybe this has changed me beyond repair,” doing the difficult work of recognizing the transformative power of pain. The song is very strong lyrically but doesn’t fully utilize the fascinating mosaic of instrumentation Sultana is known for. It feels like Sultana is challenging themself to write within, and yet build upon, the piano ballad framework on this track. Ultimately, this limits the potential of the song.
“Beyond the Pine” feels like Sultana’s take on a slow jam, with a familiar R&B/funk instrumentation that is complicated by the addition of a psychedelic guitar. The song begins as an escapist love letter to a partner before Sultana realizes they have to ask, “how can I save myself?” This track tells a story arising from their introspective break and is comforting in its self-awareness and tenderness.
“Dream My Life Away” is probably one of the best tracks on this record. It opens with a sparse, raw guitar that feels purposefully close and reflective. The lyrics are beautiful and heartbreaking with a brutal honesty that doesn’t wallow in itself. Sultana and Josh Cashman sing about the expectations they have for themselves with a tender sorrow, ruminating on feelings of loneliness and isolation we’ve all experienced over the past year. They repeat the delicate question in the chorus, “Did you watch me dream my life away?” Dreaming a life away is a terrifying thing for Sultana, as they mourn the time they spent holding themselves to unrealistic/unachievable standards created by society and their own internal pressures. When the big instrumental breakdown finally comes, it feels like a cathartic sob.
The final track “I Am Free” grounds this record in its intimacy. It is meditative yet maintains the lavish sound that works so well throughout the album. Sultana chose the name ‘Terra Firma’, for its Latin meaning of “firm ground”. This record definitively shows off the balance of Tash Sultana’s skills as a musician and as a songwriter as they try to find firm ground to stand on amidst the chaos of the world. Sultana is truly gifted, and their biggest challenge right now seems to be finding new ways to innovate and build upon an already complex, remarkably unique sound.