Words About Music
The handsome brute pissing in his own mouth in the above photograph is an Australian gent named Kirin J Callinan, an intangible figure whose previous message came in the form of his 2013 album, “Embracism.” Four years later, Callinan has returned to deliver us his latest message of doom: “Bravado.” In the spirit of avant-pop weirdos like Everything Everything, Autre Ne Veut, and Clarence Clarity, Mr. Callinan delivers noisy dance beats underneath kooky vocals to give us a full package that can barely contain itself in its 40 minutes. The result is one of the year’s catchiest, strangest albums, with its wide array of bizarre musical guests in tow.
The album kicks off with “My Moment,” which features contributions from musician and Arbutus Records founder Sean Nicolas Savage. If you haven’t heard of him, he’s partially to thank for bringing a slew of brilliant Canadian artists (Grimes, Majical Cloudz, TOPS, Tonstartssbandht) into an international limelight.
With this track, we’re hit with soft spoken word and a bouncy synth beat, as Callinan whispers, grunts, and coos about his love for… China? It’s a truly bizarre opening track that climaxes in a noisy PC Music-esque instrumental. It sounds like a dance party is happening inside Callinan’s head and he’s finally been given the opportunity to let it out, and the result is “My Moment.” It’s got a really goofy “Euro-trash” techno vibe to it, but it’s so infectious, confident, and dramatic that it works for what it’s trying to accomplish. The line between parody and legitimacy is blurred here, but what I can say is that the resulting track is an ear-grabbing opener which leads us right into the even more provocative second cut.
That song is called “S. A. D.,” which stands for “Song About Drugs.” Like the previous song, it sounds like Callinan is breathing right in your ear as he seems to depict the feelings and thoughts going through the mind of an upper-laden partygoer. It goes through many unpredictable moments and various non sequiturs (“Wrapped in plastic/Thrown down the stairs/I feel fantastic;” “Strip me down to my underwear/Cause I’m that kind of guy;” “I believe in God”) yet it’s still excruciatingly catchy. It’s hard to get this song out of my head after I’ve heard it, and it’s got so many humorous one-liners and layered instrumental bits that it provides a lot to chew on in its 3.5 minutes.
The next track, “Down 2 Hang,” features New York No Wave legend James Chance, and I think the two match styles very nicely here. Callinan meets Chance’s needs with the funk-inspired guitar and catchy hook, and Chance meeting Callinan’s by conceding the layers of noise which pepper the track. It’s a bit hard for me to tell what it is James Chance does on this song, since it sounds like Callinan is singing for its entirety, but I could be mistaken about that.
Fellow Aussie Connan Mockasin stops by on the next song, the more straightforward, poppy “Living Each Day.” Much like Mockasin’s solo music (and last year’s underrated Soft Hair album), this track appropriates ’80s pop music, filtering it through several lenses of irony, darkness, and lo-fi instrumentation. I also like the message of this track, with Callinan waxing comical about how one day you will definitely die, so live every day like it’s your last day on Earth. It sounds like it could be the theme song for a family sitcom in an alternate universe, but in this universe, it’s yet another fantastic track on the first half of this album.
The A-side comes to a close with “Big Enough,” featuring Molly Lewis, Jimmy Barnes, and Alex Cameron. Cameron kicks the song off with the first verse, setting the scene with some sort of Spaghetti Western… romance? Its narrative is akin to “Brokeback Mountain,” except Cameron’s loving cowboy and Callinan’s reserved loner seem to be pretty open about their affection for each other, eventually deciding that, indeed, their desert, ranch town is big enough for the both of them. As the track’s dance-techno beat kicks in, Callinan delivers unhinged screams, and suddenly the track reverts into a piano ballad with some beautiful background vocals. Seriously, this song sounds straight out of an overwrought musical, but it’s keenly aware of its own ridiculousness. The song turns from romance into a message of unity, with Alex and Kirin naming random countries, state, regions, and religious groups that need to just get along, with the fucking hilarious final lines: “Christianity/Islam/Judaism/Let me out!”
The record continues with “Family Home,” which features Finn Family. The topic of romance comes up again in this track, with Callinan reminiscing about a youthful bit of pre-pubescent feelings that briefly manifested between himself and a friend’s sister. I don’t think this is the most creative track lyrically on this album, but I think it’s sonically the most astonishing. I love the walls of sound that come in as Callinan reaches the multi-layered hook. It’s a really pretty song, and it further indicates his versatility as a vocalist and musician, and it nicely fills out its 5-minute runtime.
The next track is also fairly dreamy and somber. “Telling Me This,” featuring Jorge Elbrecht, feels like the romance is over, and a sense of dread is creeping over Kirin as he realizes a relationship he’s entered is coming to an end. The song’s instrumentation builds as he sings more and more about how he can tell that his partner’s feelings for him are beginning to wane purely from their expression and lack of passion for the relationship. It picks up the heartbroken ’80s film vibe. I could totally picture Anthony Michael Hall in an oversized suit standing outside in the rain as he sees Molly Ringwald get picked up for senior prom by a jock.
“This Whole Town” picks up the pieces of heartbreak with Callinan confidently opening the song off with “I can fuck around/I could go down on this whole town.” Vocalist STAR backs him up in the first verse, and the two switch roles after the first chorus. I love the off-kilter strings that build as the hook kicks in, and of course the sweltering dance drums and overblown synths return to build intensity.
More strings kick off the penultimate song, “Friend of Lindy Morrison,” which features guest vocals from alternative folk artist Weyes Blood, whose recent collaborations with Ariel Pink and Perfume Genius have been well worth many listens. This track name-drops Australian musician Lindy Morrison, who drummed for The Go-Betweens in the ’80s. I love the instrumentation on this song, with its squelching noise, proggy drums, and horn-based melody. I think this song does a great job of portraying the feeling of “making it,” however small that feeling might actually be in objective reality. In the song’s case, Callinan uses the idea of being the corner of a photograph of a somewhat legendary/famous musician as a symbol for achieving commercial success in the limited scope of the independent music world. He finishes the track off by singing “I feel we might have made it/I’m a friend of Connan Mockasin,” name-dropping an already-established Australian indie musician, who of course appears on an earlier track.
The album’s logical conclusion is its eponymous track, which ties the themes of the album together by essentially saying that the whole thing is all a front. It’s like if the previous nine songs were setting up the joke, this song is the punchline. Callinan gives a spirited performance atop a rather-epic bit of synth pop instrumentation. He sings about how his “character” is just a display of bravado, perhaps to mask the real him from public view, and to have more control over how he is to be perceived by his audience and his critics. It also works as a nice follow-up to “Big Enough,” where a cowboy lets his guard down and embraces love and unity. In “Bravado,” Callinan lets his guard down somewhat, exposing the one part of himself that hasn’t yet been exposed.
This album packs a lot into a short amount of time, and I’ve really been enjoying it the past month or so. There isn’t really a song on here that I feel like should be cut, as each brings its own unique elements. I would like to see Callinan maybe drop the techno shtick as he progresses as an artist, as it’s really the only drawback. And even then, it’s not much of a drawback, because it presents a unique lens of irony to add onto this album that has nothing to do with the lyrics or concept. What’s funnier than a warped, ’80s synthpop throwback album than one that also features bass drops?
“Funny” makes it sound like this album is meant to be laughed at, but it’s also a stunning vision of musical singularity. It’s like the soundtrack to a film John Waters would’ve made decades ago, but with many contemporary flares. I also love the way he uses his guests on this record, never allowing them to detract from the star of the show. This album is charismatic, catchy, and one of 2017’s best. I’m excited to see where this baritone-voiced, sexually-charged Aussie is going next.
SCORE — 8.50 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — S. A. D., Down 2 Hang, Living Each Day, Big Enough, Family Home, Telling Me This, This Whole Town, Bravado