Friday, December 8, 2017

album review: 'forced witness' by alex cameron

I'm not sure there's an easy way to begin this review, because to do so I need to explain Alex Cameron as an artist and the high-wire act he's walked throughout his career over the past ten years - and I'm not sure there's a way to do that without feeling like I'm walking through a hall of mirrors. Don't get me wrong, I like it when artists make art that is commenting on the artistic process and entertainment industry, but it's also the sort of ouroboros, Charlie Kaufmann-esque approach that can get a little exhausting to the audience.

So to lay some groundwork, Alex Cameron got his start in the electronic group Seekae but in the 2010s began developing his solo act, and the 'persona' that he initially adopted was that of a failed performer... but not exactly one that was fully self-aware that he had failed, and infused with some 80s-inspired alpha machismo and 'cool' to boot. Much of his debut Jumping The Shark was infused with this character, balancing wonky electronics with slick touches of 80s synthpop, actively taking the piss out of any sense of cool this character might have... but also playing it just straight enough to reclaim a little of it to a cult audience. From there he developed relationships with indie bands with a flair for retro grandiosity like Foxygen, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and even Brandon Flowers of The Killers, which got him a record deal with Secretly Canadian and a few writing credits behind their last album. And yet with this persona it also led to a collaboration with fellow Australian musician Kirin J. Callinan on a little song called 'Big Enough' on his record Bravado this year... which took his cult status and fused with a meme and his popularity got considerably bigger. And considering on his new album he was looking to explore similar themes of masculinity that Callinan had touched and had roped in both Brandon Flowers and Angel Olsen of all people for support, this was a record I had to hear... even despite, again, getting to this entirely too late. But hey, was it worth it?

Uh, yeah, this was definitely worth a lot of listens, but at the same time I'm not going to really blame myself for this flying under the wire for a while, especially in an era where an 80s pastiche is increasingly common. But at the same time, there's so much more to it than that, with Cameron looking to split the difference between the wit and flair of a Father John Misty and the irrepressible soft rock pop sensibilities that came with Kirin J. Callinan, merely a pretty damn good pop record on the surface but dig deeper and you get a smartly layered, amazingly idiosyncratic little project.

And yet here's the thing: on the surface you can see why some people might overlook a record like this. Part of this is Alex Cameron himself, who has the sort of quasi-threatrical raspy drawl that may not be as strange as Kirin J. Callinan's accent, but it can be an acquired taste, especially balanced against more immediately recognizable backing vocals from Brandon Flowers. And when you pair it with production - especially in the vocals - that feels imported straight from mid-80s soft rock... it's almost too normal to be distinctive but just weird enough to catch your ear or throw you off-guard. And that balance is quintessential to what Cameron is trying to do, picking tones and sounds that for a huge swathe of people that sound if not safe and comfortable then relatively inoffensive, from the gleaming sophisti-pop of 'Candy May' and 'Politics Of Love' to the wiry synth funk of 'Studmuffin96' to the touches of sax-accented Americana that flesh out 'Runnin' Outta Luck' and 'True Lies' and 'Stranger's Kiss' - hell, Cameron even goes for something close to Latin-infused yacht rock and calypso with 'The Hacienda'! Now initially I was a little thrown that this record didn't try to rock a little harder - we do get the occasional guitar solo like on 'Studmuffin96' - just to accentuate the hypermasculine appeal of an record like this, but then you realize that for as much as Alex Cameron might want to emphasize that presence, keeping it toned back places him much closer to all the basic guys who want that dream rather than actually living it, even if there are a few tunes and synth choices I did find a tad too chintzy. And of course none of it would be possible without rock solid keyboard hooks with great melodic layering and real groove anchored in tight, staccato basslines and sequenced drums, accented with deeper guitars and that saxophone - for as much as some would want to dismiss Cameron as a parody or imitator, he's not close to the forgotten wannabes of the era in terms of production balance and composition.

And that's when we have to get to the lyrics and themes, and that idea of masculinity Cameron is looking to explore - and to establish some context, the mid-80s soft rock and Americana scene may not have had the oversexualized bombast of hair metal, but it's hard not to see many of the attitudes of the time surrounding a 'man's place in this world' translating over, no matter how much acts like John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen tried to subvert it or add more context. And not only does Cameron know this, he's relying on that cultural construct in the mind's of audiences so he can satirize and deconstruct it, digging into that hypermasculine lone wolf archetype that was lionized in 80s pop culture and show both what it would look like now and what it probably looked like then with the benefit of hindsight and context. And the framing is key here: Cameron is walking a razor sharp line between capturing the earnest power of his beefy protagonists but also subverting it, a character you might like or even empathize with but feel faintly gross afterwards - and that's before you even get into some of the deeper content of these songs. Now one thing that Cameron utilizes that wasn't really utilized in the popular music of the time is the Internet, that anonymous line of communication to women that colors the soured and abusive relationship of 'Candy May', the porn addiction underpinning both 'The Chihuahua' and 'True Lies' - in the former he's trying to deaden his feelings after a breakup, in the latter it's a secret thrill where he doesn't even care the gender of the person sending him such sweet poetry even as he's cheating - and 'Studmuffin96', where he's ever so anxiously waiting for the girl he's chatting up to be at the age of consent. 

And if all of this looks and sounds a little pathetic and creepy and desperate... well, that's the point, because all of these feelings and emotions are rooted in trying or failing to project masculinity in a world where that definition feels increasingly restrictive and yet nebulous. It drives the frustrated torment behind 'The Hacienda', where he goes to a brothel and has some of the best sex of his life and yet can't have the women look at him while he cries, or his attempts to get a girl from another guy on 'Marlon Brando' with meat-headed posturing and attacks on his masculinity... only to see all of that crumble when confronted and his weak excuses of how he can't help it feel all the more flimsy. And for as much as 'Runnin' Outta Luck' wants to place him as the stalwart renegade saving the hooker with a heart of gold, you quickly realize that he's reliant on her running out of luck for the connection that he's buying. It's got all of the sharp insight that Josh Tillman has brought to the table... but like with Kirin J. Callinan it's not demonizing masculine traits so much as calling out the inflexible insecurities, overheated machismo, and just plain stupidity for its own sake. But it's also balanced out remarkably well: 'Stranger's Kiss' places Cameron opposite Angel Olsen, playing exes sarcastically sniping at each other and bragging about finding solace in a stranger, but from the details you can tell there's a deeper heartache that neither is dealing with properly, from the lingering emptiness within Cameron to Olsen's bitterness at seeing her legacy become a meme. These are damn potent observations and feel pretty thematically consistent - even with 'Country Figs' probably being the weakest tune it's still a biting indictment of stubborn self-reliance for its own sake - which is why I'm a tad disappointed it doesn't quite coalesce at the end. Oh, don't get me wrong, 'Politics Of Love' is a great synthpop song, but it doesn't quite tie things together quite as well as, say, Kirin J. Callinan's 'Bravado'.

But as a whole, this is a remarkably smart, witty, sharply written soft rock record that's ballsy and profane enough to vivisect the genre at its roots and yet find the swell and power within it all the same. It's the sort of record that does have a limited audience - I'm not sure this sound has reached 'charmingly retro' just yet, might ring as a tad too chintzy, and for those paying attention beyond the terrific hooks this sort of satire and deconstruction can rub them the wrong way - but for me, it's a solid 8/10 and definitely recommended. Yeah, I know I got to this one late, but trust me when I say it's worth it - definitely make the time to check this out.

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