In an age where Scissor Sisters can get a song with origins in the New York drag scene onto Strictly Come Dancing and performed by Sarah Jessica Parker on Glee (Let’s Have A Kiki), the concept of a “DIY queer band” seems almost quaint. Sexuality has always loomed large in the work of The Ballet, a trio who also hail from New York and take great pride in their outsider status. 2006’s charming debut Mattachine! laid out the band’s stall with an opening song about a Gaydar hook-up and featured the self-explanatory Cheating On Your Boyfriend.
It wasn’t all about sex, however – the presence of infectious anti-war track I Hate The War signalled that this band’s notion of queerness was a more pervasive affair, extending into the realms of radical politics and challenging mainstream society. In this way they owed more than a musical debt to their obvious antecedents The Magnetic Fields and The Hidden Cameras, bands who similarly are as familiar with the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler as with the lo-fi indie scene.
Those two bands have, of course, moved beyond their origins to build wider followings and in the process have helped pave the way for the mainstream success of unabashed queer acts such as the aforementioned Scissor Sisters. If such cult success has so far eluded The Ballet, third album I Blame Society indicates that they have an eager ambition to step up to the plate. Indeed, in contrast to the CD-R self-distribution of their previous records this album is on label Fortuna POP!, home to such indie-pop favourites as Darren Hayman and Allo Darlin’.
It’s notable, then, that while the title of I Blame Society may allude to The Ballet’s radical sensibilities the music within is easily the most mainstream they have yet put their name to. This manifests itself not only in their most accomplished production to date but in lyrics which are never as direct as they have been previously. Meaningless, for example, has a nuance which is easily lost if you don’t know the band’s history. It opens with lines which allude to the gay marriage fight in the United States (and beyond) – “I’ve got no wedding dress, I’ve got no diamond ring… I guess my love is meaningless”. These lines could easily be taken as a standard plea for ‘marriage equality’ but, as the song expands to more existential questions of life, it becomes clear that singer Greg Goldberg is actually celebrating the freedom which comes with the absence of imposed definition and structure. It’s a song about queer liberation and with this in mind its shuffling gait and ’60s girl group backing vocals take on a greater resonance.
This subtext is present throughout I Blame Society but for the most part it’s obvious that it’s an album intended to be heard by people previously unaware of The Ballet. Its lyrics are carried in big, confident pop songs which fizz with melody and frequently manage the tricky balancing act of being generally appealing while addressing specifically queer themes. Too Much Time, for example, concerns the homophobic religious right yet comes on as quirky ‘us against the world’ anthem, its burbling synths and xylophone proving irresistible. The intriguing Turn You, meanwhile, is appealingly dynamic while offering dark lyrics like “I’m gonna make you sick like me, I’m gonna set your body free”.
The opening Alright makes the dash for more success instantly obvious, roaring out of the gates with pounding Motown-esque drums and strings which recall the brief liaison between McAlmont & Butler. Even more commercial is Feelings, the kind of ’80s new wave anthem which should soundtrack a film featuring Rob Lowe and Molly Ringwald. It’s polished and persuasive stuff but there are moments when the lurch towards the mainstream becomes brazenly derivative – to say that Sorry pays homage to Erasure’s Breath Of Life would be putting it very kindly, while All The Way sounds like a Jesus And Mary Chain tribute band (albeit a very enjoyable one). Still, most of I Blame Society is intelligent, engaging and most importantly hugely listenable. It’s really not a stretch to imagine some of these songs soundtracking a future episode of Glee and, even if that’s unlikely, the possibility is a success in itself for such a previously niche band.