"Mostly, to my surprise, this album’s about people who have found some happiness for a little while. And there's a few songs about not being able to get that together and running short of time."
In between the illicit drag racing thrill of his Cold Chisel rocker "Yakuza Girls" and the baleful piano blues of "At The Piccolo Bar", chances are you know some of the people Don Walker means.
Whatever happiness they find is coloured by the heat haze and medicinal grog and sheer emptiness that seeps through his songs; songs that draw their blood and guts from this wide brown land as vividly as any singer ever has.
It's fitting that the first track on Cutting Back is the last one that Slim Dusty recorded. Don's reclaimed version of "Get Along" is the first leg of a trip we all recognise from some angle, from the proverbial black stump to eternity. But nobody describes the experience more eloquently than this.
Most of the songs are set in regional towns – maybe the race-track end of things – and the spaces between. They're about good people, often with bad troubles and long, scarred memories that wander and fester between former wives and dead mates and the inevitable larger questions that settle in their wake.
Meanwhile, Red Rivers' guitar makes like wind in the wires and Garrett Costigan's pedal steel loosely approximates a level crossing or a keg going off. Angus Diggs plays drums; Steve Woods and Michael Vidale share bass.
Cutting Back is a kind of Eldorado for this calibre of player. Guitarists Ian Moss, Charlie Owen and Jeff Lang also leave marks of distinction. Dave Blight's harmonica nearly bleeds to death in "Fallen Angel", a last gasp romance that finally got nailed to the piano in a club in Adelaide.
Each of these songs was stalked and captured at similar painstaking length, caught when they were good and ready, mostly in various morning-after recording sessions over a four-year period at Electric Avenue Studios in Annandale.
Sometimes they came easy: Don's church piano demo of "Sweet Eyes" was sweet enough the first time. Others sound like they could only be tamed by a post-gig hangover: listen to the ghostly howl of "Silos", and a stunning title track that seems to catch a crushed soul at the very cusp of redemption.
"That song, 'Cutting Back', eluded us until I went into the studio with Ian Moss, Phil Small and Steve Prestwich," Don says. The result is an apparently effortless masterpiece of compressed emotion, one of their finest moments as a band with or without the Cold Chisel brand name.
It's also a classic example of Walker's gift for song as conversation: as gripping as Tom Waits or Merle Haggard only here and now, maybe on a phone on the Barkly Highway or somewhere equally as desolate and familiar.
The oldest songs on Cutting Back were written before Don's last solo album, We're All Gunna Die. They're not about politics, art, culture or fashion. They’re about people and times and things that don’t change; more often can’t be changed. That's why they turn up in insomniac driving songs like "Four In the Morning" and bottomless love songs like "The Way You Are Tonight".
"I Want My Kids to Look Like You" sounds like it might have been winding up late openers at the Gympie Muster for decades. "My Ex-Wife" is a wry, claustrophobic, small town tale that breathes simultaneous sighs of regret and amusement that only long reflection can entwine.
Then there's "No Reason", a discomforting tale of violent and senseless bereavement that treads a razor's edge between existential crisis and blind fury. If Cutting Back was a series of noir outback vignettes, this one would be a William Burroughs screenplay directed by David Lynch.
Little of which explains why the album took 11 years to see the light of day. For that, you could look to inspired interruptions from Chisel, Slim, Troy Casser-Daly and the venerable trio of Tex, Don and Charlie – a dead set national treasure whose second album, All Is Forgiven, made the shortlist for the inaugural peers' and critics' Amp Award of 2006.
In truth, each of those projects is part of the same 360-degree vista that Don Walker's been sketching in ever finer detail since the first Cold Chisel album of '78. Producer Phil Punch has been in on the picture long enough to seize the right light for every scene and Cutting Back is without doubt their finest cut to date.
"The aim," says Don, "was to find a definitive performance of each song." What's more, he adds, "there were many more songs written and recorded than appear on the album." Their time will perhaps come. For now, Cutting Back is just the gold that's drifted into his pan.