Feel The Sound
, February 6th, 2012 07:37
Fifteen years is a long time to sustain cult stardom in the digital age, but if Imperial Teen shed any hopes of a commercial breakthrough sometime before Al Gore ran for president, the climate has since changed in their favour. On What Is Not to Love (1999) and On (2002) they came off like a post-grunge Pet Shop Boys, an electronic lacquer gleaming on even the rockiest arrangement. Feel The Sound, their first album since 2007, boasts the kind of incremental shifts in emphasis that no one but fans will savour, but for sexually confused young people in search of a soundtrack, it will do.
The modest subversions in which their 1996 debut Seasick trafficked still startle, in part because of the fascinating disjunctions the band's biography forced into their songs. Guitarist-singer Roddy Bottum had played keyboards for shock-metal act Faith No More; drummer Lynn Truell spent time in Sister Double Happiness. The histrionics and flamboyance of the former and overt leftism of the latter manifested themselves in songs whose harmonies and hooks, turned up to an almost hysterical pitch, camouflaged words that hinted at forbidden pleasures. Their sexual ambivalence had a musical correlative: the drummer played guitar, the keyboardist sang the loudest. Sometimes their songs merely inverted stereotypes ("The prince wants to be a queen" asserted 'Butch'). Others went for the throat, especially the single 'You're One', the queer apotheosis of the stop-start dynamics of Nirvana-inflected songwriting, not to mention the fulfillment of Kurt Cobain's queer envy. "You kiss me like a man, boy," Bottum sang, in a voice suspended between awe and fear of newly discovered feelings.
But as allusive and elusive as their words often were, Imperial Teen weren't and aren't subtle about hooks. With aural literalism their mantra now, Feel The Sound packs their strongest punch to date. By burying lyrics, Imperial Teen shift our attention to the shrewdness with which they use the studio these days, a development that makes this second-best album a decided lateral improvement over B+ records like On and 2007's The Hair, The TV, The Baby, & The Band. Songs like 'Over His Head' and 'It's You' boast the sort of syncopations endemic to synthpop.
As the valedictory 'Overtaken' piles layers of "ooh-ooh" harmonies, the real theme of Feel The Sound becomes clear: submission. As much as I loathe biographical criticism, I'll wager that one or more of the bandmates are in love – it would explains the record's woolier moments.. We don't hear much of the experience of middle-aged men and women warming to love tempered by age in modern pop, which is why I treasure the grown-up sentiments of 'Overtaken': "You're so safe, you're in my mind/Fall for only half the time," Will Schwartz says, punching every monosyllable as a sad organ and martial drums offer punctuation. We're back to Pet Shop Boys and 1986's 'Why Don't We Live Together', an acceptance of callousness so gleeful that it upends notions of how to define commitment.
Of course Imperial Teen can't be the Pet Shop Boys, and neither can the Pet Shop Boys; their moment hasn't passed so much as mutated in a largely positive strand in straight-gay relations. Most of us boast straight best friends, some of whom will even dance with us at a gay club. But the new integration has sometimes occluded the direction in which desire flows. If Feel The Sound isn't quite ready to articulate what we want from the New Queer, neither are we. But I expect major acts to not just remind us of what's at stake but illuminate possibilities, however foolish. Imperial Teen, who as recently as their 2007 single 'Room With a View' caricatured the travails of being a touring band with a shitty credit rating, seem to be still trying to catch up with what they haven't gotten away with.