The explicit lyrics of gay singer-songwriter/actor Jay Brannan will doubtless have the moral majority in his native America up in arms. Although winding up the Christian right is very admirable, there is plenty on his debut album to warrant further investigation by those of a less delicate and blinkered nature.
The Texan-born Brannan edged onto the artistic radar with a part in John Cameron Mitchell’s 2006 film Shortbus, which also featured the early song Soda Shop on the soundtrack. He built up a strong online profile with a series of EPs and a self-released version of Goddamned, promoting his music on YouTube, Facebook and MySpace. All very 21st century, with Brannan’s chiselled good looks, boyish charm, and sexual frankness helping make him something of an Internet phenomenon.
Despite Brannan wishing in A Death Waltz that “my songs didn’t suck”, he clearly has a way with words and a gift for catchy acoustic folk pop melodies. Goddamned opens with the winning line “Applying moisturizer in the microwave window for the tenth time”, and the song in question (Can’t Have It All) sets Brannan up as the natural heir of modern singer-songwriters such as Ani DiFranco and Liz Phair, unsparing in detailing his emotional and sexual life.
The spare guitar work certainly echoes early DiFranco recordings, and she would nod her head in agreement with the line “fuck this, this can’t be my life”, but the rather sophomoric quality of the chorus and the bridge (“Do we hold the future, or does it come in peace?”) indicate Brannan is not yet the finished article.
This is a common problem throughout Goddamned, with Brannan’s bare-breasted confessional style alternating between moments of genuine insight and clunky juvenilia. Lines such as “I’ve got my laptop for pleasure and my guitar for pain” (Bowlegged & Starving) and “Nine out of 10 motherfuckers agree/That his fucking foul language is a fucking travesty/But motherfucking fuck is just another fucking word” (On All Fours) trip up otherwise excellent songs.
The crowd-pleasing American Idol and Housewife are witty enough on the first few spins but lack the depth of Brannan’s best songs. In common with many outwardly confident singer-songwriters, he gets it right when he doesn’t try so goddamned hard to please.
A Death Waltz and Home are deeply affecting and beautifully performed, with producer Will Golden’s string embellishments elegantly framing Brannan’s silky vocals and drawing out the subtle layers in both songs. The title track is better still, with Brannan diverting his gaze from matters of the flesh to share his views on religious hypocrisy. This state of the world address could have seen him falling flat on his face, but he pulls it off through the sheer intensity of his performance and some well-observed lyrics.
Brannan already has a devoted fanbase that will snap up this album and help preach the word. The major label backing the re-release of Goddamned are hoping for bigger things; it is to be hoped that he is given time to fully develop his talents.