Jake Shears’ Self-Titled Album Is a Southern-Fried Flamboyant Frenzy
Jake Shears is best known as the frontman of electroclash sensation Scissor Sisters. The band has been on hiatus since 2012, other than the exception of one isolated single last year. Shears, in the meantime, has taken up numerous projects, most notably starring in “Kinky Boots” on Broadway. Such as was the case with Panic! At the Disco’s Brendon Urie, who preceded Shears in the very same role, Shears’ music has taken an unabashedly theatrical turn. Also shaping the sound heavily was Shears’ relocation to New Orleans and absorption of the city’s rich musical heritage. While worlds away from the indie electronic stylings of Scissor Sisters, Shears’ self-titled album does have the same unbridled festive creativity, and is a fascinating record in its own right.
From the first full song, “Good Friends,” the music screams Elton John. Shears and John are friends, and the rock legend’s influence has seeped in big time on this record. It’s in the crafting of the songs, with their piano-heavy styles, their country-tinged sounds, the rounded, decadent vocal harmonies, even in the quirks of Shears’ crooning. He channels the very spirit of John, often picking up his distinctive inflections. At first strike, the sound can be a slightly jarring anachronism, making one baffle at what exactly is going on. The loungy ‘70s piano man was a specimen any reasonably-minded individual would have dismissed as long gone for good, but we’ve already seen an excavation of the type earlier this year on Arctic Monkeys’ “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.” Could it be that we are on the cusp of a large-scale resurgence? Whatever the odds, it’s an aesthetic that’s currently light years away from become standard retro fare. So Shears’ adopted sound comes across as fresh. Moreover, it’s a drastically different take on the sensibility than the Monkeys’ Alex Turners’. It’s more glam, more outlandishly festive and jubilant, and bearing the influence of Shears’ new Southern home.
The opener is remarkable for the effortlessness with which it seems to pull off both its catchiness and its attention to instrumental detail, the latter always sounding as if played by musicians who are having an absolute blast. These are qualities that remain largely consistent throughout the album, to its great merit. There are drawbacks, however. “Big Bushy Moustache” starts with a delightfully brittle guitar line and abundant colorful soundcandy, only to get butchered by a chorus that hits too soon and plays too big. It’s a heavy sigh-inducing letdown, and it makes everything a bit too gaudy and garish. This is egregiously exacerbated by some hideous falsetto singing from Shears. While he sounds top-notch for the vast majority, this particular stretch of sound seems to defy any other explanation than his actually intending to sound as awful as possible. When one considers the campy, kitschy nature of the album, this isn’t all that inconceivable. Perhaps he just got carried away dancing about, and decided to delve briefly into total farce and have a bit of a laugh. This seems especially likely upon listening to “Creep City,” which features more falsetto, this time in the form of punctuated gasps, and done so smoothly that it almost makes up for “Big Bushy Moustache.”
While there is plenty New Orleans jazz band frolic, there isn’t quite as much as you might expect from Shears’ actually living in that city. There are as many country elements, if not more, than jazz ones. Many of the songs are essentially honky-tonk ditties, replete with banjo, a twang in Sheers’ voice, occasional Dolly Parton-sounding backup singers, and sometimes stylings like slide guitar. Don’t expect anything too “rustic” however, as the sound is always generously beefed up and scaled up — which is where the NOLA jazz comes in. The western tune of “Sad Song Backwards,” especially flawless in all its detail, is transformed by its horn sections. There are more restrained tracks on the album, such as “All For What,” providing a moment of relative calm. Yet, all tracks retain a festive mood, to differing degrees. At moments, it’s a rather supersized affair. “Everything I Need” has a radical midsong shift, recalling the likes of Of Montreal in its flamboyant ambition.
On the more sexually overt tracks, “S.O.B.” and “Clothes Off,” Shears suddenly delves into pure funk sounds, adopting ridiculous diva posturing, over wah-wah guitars and all the works. The former title’s acronym expands to “Sex on my brain,” and most would agree that the way Shears sings about it is a little much. It’s slightly eye-rolling fare, to say the least, as listening to the track feels as if you’ve walked into a room to completely unexpectedly find a makeup-heavy Shears, having donned a female friend’s attire and jewels, prancing about the room and bleating in a sheer frenzy. Granted, Sheer had a particularly tough experience coming out to his parents, and it seems as if he’s chosen to deal with it partly by cramming as much gayness into this album as he can muster. More power to him.
“The Bruiser” is strikingly different from anything else on the record, with a beat that quite blatantly borrows from Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing,” and a thrillingly fractured, glitchy instrumental interplay. The final track, “Mississippi Delta (I’m Your Man)” seems like a rather odd choice of a closer, in the context of an album so lively that many other songs would have ended with a bigger bang. It’s a song about traveling all over, and concluding that the south is best. While this age-old sentiment has been the subject of countless other songs, it’s likely never been expressed with so much frivolous pomp. The giddy, bombastic, theatrical stylings of the tune function to make it seem a bit unsouthern, and may reasonably prompt the skeptical raising of eyebrows. Still, it’s in the spirit of the work at large, and brings things to a decent closure.
Jake Shears’ solo album finds the artist taking a bold new direction, and never shirking on substance. Moreover, it’s a considerably unique musical direction, in the styles and sensibilities that it meshes. Apart from a few quite ghastly moments, the songs are carefully crafted and masterfully performed. Most appealing of all is that you can audibly discern the fun with which the songs were played. In all its tackiness, it’s overall a remarkably enjoyable record.
“Jake Shears” is available Aug.10 on Apple Music.