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Flint’s one-album wonders: Scissor Sisters – Scissor Sisters (2004)



I’ve been thinking of setting up an article series of some sort for a while now, just to give me something to periodically update with. I’ve thus decided that 2013 will be the year where I’ll be tackling a good chunk of the albums that I adore despite not showing much love for the artists in general. While I do tend to get into their discographies in full whenever I get into an artist, I’m not infallible and there are a number of cases where artists only ever did one album I’ve gotten excited about. There can be various reasons for this and it’s not always the case that the artists simply got worse afterwards. I won’t be mentioning artists who only ever released one album because, well, that’s their whole career and it misses the point of these articles. I’ll be talking about one each month and to begin with, let’s take a trip back to 2004 when a band from New York’s club scene burst into the surface and made one hell of a splash.

ss_smallThere are many kinds of debut albums and tropes that surround them, but the ones that tend to become cherished classics and legendary albums tend to have one or two things in common: they either break genre boundaries in a revolutionary fashion or they’re fueled by almost arrogant ambition and hunger for world domination. Scissor Sisters‘ self-titled album, released in 2004, belongs to the latter category. Like many great debuts it sounds like it’s on a mission to prove the world that there is a great hole in the music map and they’re there to fill it, that they’re needed to exist. Then they go out their way to prove this with young passion, a confident attitude and some level of audacity, a belief that they can do no wrong. It’s no wonder that the band became huge – the album sounds like that was the only choice that could ever possibly exist.

Talking about the Scissor Sisters in 2013 tends to be a bit of a loaded affair. Ignoring the fact that they’re effectively a pop act and one from an era before the recently developed acceptance from the non-mainstream audiences that it’s ok to love pop music, they’re one of those acts who bear the downside of releasing a brilliant debut album: the feeling that all their inspiration was spent on that one initial explosion and ever since they’ve been left wondering what to do. The band’s career since is a series of diminishing returns, difficult recording sessions, long periods of absence, underwhelming singles and lead singles that feel like they’re pandering towards the charts and which bear no similarity whatsoever to their parent albums. When the group announced in late 2012 that they were going on an undetermined hiatus, it was hardly a shock surprise announcement.

But during the time their flame burned bright, they managed to create the perfect combination of songwriting and attitude, incredible hooks fueled by world-conquering audacity and ambition. There’s certainly a lot of the audacity: the album’s most (in)famous moment is the cover of “Comfortably Numb”, a prog rock sacred cow ballad turned into a throbbing disco stomper seemingly solely aimed to outrage people. But it also showcases the brilliance and the reason why the SS S/T is so good: this isn’t just a dull thump-thump take on a song. The production is cold and gloomy and despite the disco falsetto, the vocals sound detached and melancholy. Its guise may be a dancefloor filler, but the production and the way the cover has been realised bring it far closer to melancholy original. Our feet may tell that it’s something to dance to but it’s hard to really imagine the life of the party would be something this paranoid. And yet, it sounds playful – despite its gloomy underlinings, the Sisters know perfectly that they’re treading on sacred grounds and they find their fun from it, delivering the discotheque melancholia with their tongues firmly in their cheeks. This delicate balance between fun and serious is the heart of the album. This is before the Scissor Sisters turned into cartoonified versions of themselves and flooded their catalogue with throwaway pop filler: there is constant interplay of light and dark on the debut album, often both making their presence. Make no mistake, it is a very extroverted album, filled with loud sounds and raucous energy, but time and time again it flips the coin on its other side and presents a different take on the band. One that goes into more personal depths and bares its soul on display. They help to flesh out the band themselves, not only by offering variety but by underlining that underneath all the silly names (Ana Matronic, Babydaddy, etc) and fierce attitude there’s a group of people pouring their everything, including their own emotions, into their music.

The big singles are great, definitely – “Take Your Mama” and in particular “Filthy/Gorgeous” sound even better than ever now that they no longer play everywhere in the most inappropriate contexts, allowing the listener to re-evaluate them once more as the genuinely great tunes that they are (and in particular the brilliantly chaotic and busy production of “Filthy/Gorgeous” was completely lost in the background of whatever TV show that used it on any given moment years ago). But it’s the oft-unspoken album tracks that really show just how brilliant Scissor Sisters were at crafting songs in the mid-00s and why the debut is so good. In particular “It Can’t Come Quickly Enough”, hidden right near the end of the album, is the criminally unrecognised masterpiece moment of the album and arguably its top moment, a dramatic and dark half-ballad half-anthem that feels incredibly desolate and lonely as a complete opposite to how grand and stadium-filling it sounds. “Better Luck”, “Lovers in the Backseat” and the oft-forgotten debut single “Laura” are model examples of how to craft a perfect pop melody and if there’s one ‘outrageous’ moment I would have wanted the world adopt from this album, it’s the deliciously bass-driven “Tits on the Radio“. The frequent nods towards popular music of yore brought to modern day add to the magic (“Better Luck”‘s 80s-isms, “Take Your Mama”‘s 70s singer/songwriter vibe, “Mary” is a loving tribute to every classic power ballad written, etc). The band’s stellar performance brings forth the final special touch. In particular Jake Shears’ performance here, both vocally and sometimes even lyrically, really brings to mind how once upon a time he could’ve been considered to be one of the best frontmen of his generation. Obviously that ship sailed away a long time ago, but he really is on fire here.

When the S/T got big back in its day, it felt like one of those moments where the mainstream market got it, that a band who deserved success actually got it: even back then I was positively surprised when something I really loved suddenly became big everywhere (insert your favourite token “I liked it before it was cool” piss-take phrase here). Nearly a decade later when the band’s public presence is at its minimum, listening to the debut now just confirms that it wasn’t your usual kind of trend-following pedestal-raising that happens time to time in public media to fairly unexciting acts. The material holds up excellently, sounds completely fresh and the album still feels like a gem that should be mentioned alongside the usual subjects in any sort of 00s retrospectives. Of course, there are the more personal biases – 2004-2005 was a fairly monumental period in music for me, both in terms of quality outputs as well as in the sheer amount of new music I seeked out – but when I listen to the S/T now it’s surprisingly bereft of any nostalgia or associated memories. The reason I rate it high isn’t because it hit me in a special way during a special time, it’s because it’s such an unbelievably well made record that has the exact same punch and force now as it has always had. It’s a brilliant pop album that sounds like people poured their hard-worked sweat, tears and blood over it to make it the best damn thing they’d ever do. Sadly it turned out that’s just what they did but focusing on the downsides takes away from enjoying the positives and ultimately dampens the mood during the celebration. And despite its serious heart, that’s exactly what the Scissor Sisters debut feels like – a celebration of a band in their prime, their creative vein and their desire to be on top of the world.

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