After a season in glam-rock makeup, Adam Lambert kicked-off his post-Idol career by coming out in a Rolling Stone interview. After a lifetime in straight-drag, Ricky Martin skipped the music media middleman to communicate directly with his fans by coming out on his blog. Neither had overtly gay content in their lyrics — their wardrobe is another story — and both waited to establish their careers before coming out. Compare them to queer indie bands, like Brooklyn’s three-piece “sissy pop” band, The Ballet who’ve embraced queer lyrics and DIY art packaging since their 2006 debut, Mattachine!. Their latest album Bear Life takes it one step further with infectious Stephin Merritt-tinged dance-ditties about gay love and arty packaging from an out visual artist. Lambert and Martin never had it so gay.
We homos are always on the prowl for the next dance anthem, the latest lyrical mantra set to a good groove—whether on a wood-planked summer dance floor or in a dank basement at a suburban house party. The Ballet’s debut track “In My Head” arrived ready to get down, armed with a jaunty melody, a Casio drum loop, beautiful string arrangements and a lyrical ode to the sweaty pushes and salty pulls of a romantic entanglement: “I know it’s wrong to make you fall in love with me / With just a song and half a hit of ecstasy. / But I was scared that you would leave / cause in my head you’re all I need.”
Their first album Mattachine! embodied everything that makes The Ballet truly fabulous—a collection of self-described “sissy pop” songs (like “Cheating On Your Boyfriend” and “Clay”) that captured both the confusion and euphoria of 21st-century relationships with personal narratives and pop hooks forging tattoos onto listeners’ brains.
Even better, they only pressed 200 copies of Mattachine! and packaged them in self-printed hand-folded envelopes, making the album a hard-to-come-by collector’s item of the “you had to be there” variety. But shortly after its release, the band (Greg Goldberg on guitar and vocals, Craig Willse on synths, and Marina Miranda on bass) went on an academic hiatus, leaving fans wondering if they’d ever return.
And their reemergence is Bear Life, their synth-drenched sophomore album complete with guest vocalists (Kaki King and Scott Matthew). On the album cover, artist Daniel Barrow presents “Teenage Medusa”, forlornly looking into a hand mirror while her bejeweled snakes hiss and writhe—an apt image for an album that croons about the intersection between seduction and brutality. One of the opening songs, “Dangerous” goes, “And all the boys you collect like figurines / they fall like grain from some gay vending machine… but underneath the sweat and muscle tone / a broken heart and fear of being alone.”
Bear Life is a huge step forward, both sonically and lyrically. It’s a more crafted album than Mattachine!, which sometimes feels like a grand experiment with a visiting string-section. In contrast, Bear Life‘s songs (like “The House On Fire” [MP3] and “Chinatown”) use riffs from Willse’s synths to solidly build satisfying arrangements, each ripe for a remix (which Mark Robinson already did for “In My Head”).
Mattachine! explored the edges of gay society unflinchingly though with touch of Final Fantasy and Belle and Sebastian. Bear Life‘s sound though, is far more exhilarating, with hyper-orchestrations and manic synths, that get anchored by the reality-check of Goldberg’s monotone vocals. In “Rough Trade” he sings, “You can break my heart, I won’t be angry I swear. / And you can trash my art; it wasn’t going anywhere.” He articulates the universal unease and elation of relationships that gives the songs both a hard realistic edge and the fantastical elation of dreaming and exploration.