Over the past decade The Hidden Cameras, the project of singer/songwriter Joel Gibb, have quietly provided some of the most beautiful, inventive compositions and soundscapes in indie pop. Well, “quietly” refers to the fact that The Hidden Cameras haven’t reached the levels of popularity and acclaim as acts like Sufjan Stevens and Jens Lekman have.
Indeed, it’s not like The Hidden Cameras haven’t tried to garner some attention; they play what Gibb once described as “gay church folk music” – a line that maybe returns to haunt him every time they’re mentioned in prose – their live shows have been known to feature a choir, a string section and dancers, and some of their best-known songs are about the joys of urination. But on Age, The Hidden Cameras’ latest studio album, Gibb continues his experimental combinations of genres and sounds while ambitiously weaving them into an album with a story about growing up, resulting in something flawed yet consistently captivating.
Age’s musical and emotional centerpiece is surely lead single Gay Goth Scene, a song about a kid being bullied at school. The track epitomizes the majority of the album’s songs’ structures: chanting, layered, deep, brooding vocals are coupled with staccato strings, both of which ultimately give lead to a driving beat or threaten to give way but never do so. But what separates Gay Goth Scene from the rest of the tracks on the album and from The Hidden Cameras’ previously joke-laden themes and aesthetic is Gibb’s newfound ability to write a pop track that deals with serious, important issues. For a project that has always been unmistakably original, to write a song that celebrates originality and being oneself, and doing so while sounding like nobody else, is an impressive statement.
Likewise, on an overall level, what is most successful about Age is that it’s experimental without abandoning the “pop” part. Many of Age’s songs employ the same formula as Gay Goth Scene but do so without sounding tired. For instance, on Bread For Brat, controlled, arpeggiated strings create an infectious melody that lasts throughout the song’s three-minute duration, while on opener Skin & Leather and on third track Doom, church-like chants provide a backbone to frantic strings that ultimately give way to a forward, thumping dance punk beat.
Surprisingly, when Age abandons its working structural formula in its second half, it stumbles. Those who thought Reflektor to be Arcade Fire’s best album might like the six-minute dub reggae of Afterparty, but for anyone who found Reflektor’s tracks to be overcooked and unnecessarily long, this is a song that’s okay to skip. Moreover, in contrast to Arcade Fire’s authentic adoption of Jamaican and Haitian rhythms and melodies, Afterparty sounds like cultural appropriation without good reason.
And the Chicago house piano meets Italians Do It Better synthpop of Carpe Jugular makes for a good song but also prevents the album from becoming a cohesive stylistic statement. One could ostensibly make the argument that, in a coming of age album, the fact that the more traditionally danceable tracks take place towards the end signify that the album’s subject is growing more comfortable with his body and sexuality, but such claims seem like forced justification for Age’s sudden betrayal of its own successful musical formula.
Thankfully, short, penultimate track Ordinary Over You saves Age by successfully taking its formula and making it different enough from the album’s other songs by replacing strings with synths. These synths are to Bread For Brat’s strings in that they build and waver but never explode into ecstasy. Yet, they’re still driving enough to be uplifting and inspiring. It’s the perfect encapsulation of what Age does best: distill the complexities and what seems like the eternity of growing up into a concise pop song.