It’s customary for an artist on the promo trail to talk up how progressive their new album is. But in the two years since Clockwork floored the hip-hop world, Phrase — aka Melbourne MC Harley Webster — has completely ripped up his past by the roots. Babylon, his third album, throws down the gauntlet to any musician feeling hemmed in by a scene and longing to paint a bigger picture.

Accustomed to dropping his rhymes over loops and breaks, this time around Harley did way with all samples and penned songs from scratch on guitar. He found himself leaning to the raw, desperate delivery of Australian garage rock and British mod, and so enlisted a producer, Tony Buchen, with a similar aesthetic, to take the demos to the next level. The result is a soulful, edgy album that’s screaming to be heard with full live band.

Rest assured, Babylon retains Phrase’s trademark acerbic insights. While he’s drawn on some vintage genres when structuring the songs, on the verses he’s re-imagined the vocalist as rapper back in the day, emerging with a flawlessly blended sound that’s startlingly unique.

Artfully designed to jack up your adrenalin, these tracks hum with tremolo guitar, Farfisa and Hammond lines. The choruses (so epic they must be carved into the side of a mountain somewhere) feature gutsy vocals from an unlikely crew of special guests — and Harley singing, for the first time, himself.

Take ‘Apart’ — a garage stomper with guitar twists and a chorus sung by You Am I’s Davey Lane — which laments a chaotic, hungover relationship, or ‘Just For You’, channelling Lupe Fiasco’s thoughtful pop ethic. Then there’s ‘Dreamers’, a vagrant’s tale of feeling lost, buoyed by a starry-eyed chorus from Sydney soul man Guineafowl, who’ll have pupils dilating all round: “We’ll write the words in lights across the sky / The world is ours tonight”. ‘Velvet Glove’ pulls no punches: amid classic hard-boiled Phrase-isms like “The cover’s blown like a premature teen”.

Guineafowl came to the table with an attitude Harley admired. “A lot of the time you get feedback from managers wondering if the timing is right to promote their artist’s next release, and ‘How big an artist is Phrase?’” he sighs. “Fuck, it shouldn’t be about that. I love collaborating with people because I find it fun and refreshing, and it can take something to a whole other dimension.”

In the past, Harley has collaborated extensively with the bright sparks of the Australian hip-hop scene, and purists should approve of hard-nosed tracks like ‘Phoenix, ‘Shut Em Down’ and ‘Bubblegum’, which are steeped in his black humour. The latter depicts a morning after, skulking through Sydney’s Surry Hills and contemplating the carbon copy hipsters with his customary cynicism: “My peripheral is catching all the visuals and action that they’re missing while they’re looking through their haircuts … I’m the freshest one here, I’m the fucking North Pole, the genuine dinky-di artefact”.

Harley will admit to some concern about how Babylon will be received, given that it marks a departure from his hip-hop roots. But, he points out, being Harley the songwriter and Phrase the commodity combined, it’s he alone who must publicly cop any flack about his decisions — and so he was determined to produce an album that’s true to himself.

“For 15 years now I’ve had to think about myself constantly from the moment I wake up,” he says, admitting he packed off to Bali to write when he should have been on his honeymoon. “I’m always thinking about how people are going to perceive a record and my level of success. It does mess with your head. It wasn’t until the end of the record that I realised I was pretty emotional. I’d really poured a lot into this and I was nervous about the whole thing, partly because it’s a big change musically, and partly because of how much I’m revealing. I’m not 25: when you’re travelling the country, getting drunk and sleeping with women, doing all sorts of shit. As time ticks by your responsibilities start to stack up, and I’m putting myself on the line to be judged.”

‘Faithful’ is a testament to this. Bearing the hallmarks of ’60s-style strings and the soaring falsetto of Sparkadia’s Alex Burnett, it depicts a homeless man Harley spotted on a beach while writing in Phillip Island, which put his own troubles into perspective — and the rawness is audible. Babylon, in general, raises some quite existential questions, and mulls over a lifestyle that’s done a number on Harley. ‘Chase the Sun’ is a monologue about “the fear that I could never see another stage again”.

On ‘Never Enough’, with its Lennon-style piano, Harley debuts a singing voice that’s as authentically world-weary and beaten as your classic blues belter. It’s a paean to an artist’s struggle to pull himself out of both poverty and drug-fuelled depravity: “Similar to bad teeth, you’re best to pull the fuckers out / Because it starts with one root and then infects the whole mouth”.
The subject of reputation raises its head on ‘The Book’, a poignant stormer of a track. With the first verse and chorus depicting a Facebook fantasist lying about her life (“Make believe is better than loneliness / But we don’t want to be all alone in this / So we share every moment with anyone and with everyone” sings Harley’s wife Jade, aka Jane Doe), the second verse puts the boot on the other foot. “I’ve got thousands of friends on the internet but what the fuck do I really have?” Harley laughs sheepishly of the way artists also get sucked in. “It’s about a persona that you create, not just imitating life, but almost becoming life.”

‘Babylon’ is a paranoid stalker, loaded with remorse: “I got a feeling that I’m rotten on the inside / A bad apple in a barrel full of good ones / More baggage than a carousel of lost love / This old heart won’t travel like it would once”. It details a father/son relationship, which Harley feels few men speak of. “It’s about admitting fault,” he elaborates. “I’m trying to get things right, but fucking up constantly, and it’s not okay.”

While Harley’s spin on life can be derisive, his delivery aggressive, there’s always a chink of light shining through that signals the possibility of redemption. “To me,” Harley concludes, “‘Babylon’ means a place of beauty and getting to a better point in life. That’s what the record represents.”