If you’re even remotely acquainted with The Hidden Cameras, you’ll be expecting three things from their new album. From the first minute to the last, you’ll be be expecting sugar-sweet “gay church folk music” designed to flood your synapses with serotonin. You’ll be expecting heaps of celestial intrumentation – harps, violions, glockenspiels, to name but a few – from the fifteen-plus members of the band. And you’ll definitely be expecting some naughty lyrics about innovative varieties of man-on-man action.
But it seems that after three increasingly poppy, earthily physical albums, bandleader Joel Gibb is keen to strike out in new directions altogether. Ratify The New opens the album with two minutes of dark, ominous organ drone: a single sustained note bolstered only by some barely audible monk-like chanting and miscellaneous rumbles.
It then erupts into a slow, weighty chant driven along by a pounding tympani and a cacophony of screechy, exotic sounding strings. If Gibb’s early work was all about channelling the spirit of happy-clappy Christianity into his personal vision, this evokes the austerity of a medieval abbey. That, or the last couple of Scott Walker albums.
The mesmeric opening has the feel of an overture; to a ponderous, serious, introspective album. Which, in some ways, Origin: Orphan is – and yet is much more, too. As the six-plus minutes of the Ratify The New draw to a close, expectations are confounded again as we are plunged headlong into the joyful, insistent honey-coated first single, In The NA.
It’s a vintage Hidden Cameras track: simply structured, insanely catchy, and full of lyrics whose apparent nonsensical nature belie a clever subversion of language. “NA”, pronounced here as “nah”, apparently stands for “Not Applicable.” Repeated over and over again in different contexts, it mischievously evokes passion, dispassion, pain or innuendo. “Wash my back, in the NA… Hypnotised, in the NA… Hold me close, in the NA… Incomplete, in the NA…” Like an art-pop version of Blankety Blank, if you will.
There are other startling stylistic leaps as the album progresses, but it’s consistently apparent how much Joel Gibb’s songwriting has matured. The keen pop sensibility is still there, though tracks are typically slower, more elegant, and more often heartbreakingly beautiful.
And his fondness for lyrical mischief clearly hasn’t gone away (“let’s do it like we’re underage… I’ll pretend you’re seven and you’ll pretend I’m eight”), though the cheekiness is usually more muted and buried under palpable emotion. Frequently Gibb alludes to having been romantically rejected or at least treated with coldness or cruelty, putting him firmly in the tradition of gay songwriters – like Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields – whose work is never better than when they’ve just been dumped.
The personal tone of tracks like Colour Of A Man, Do I Belong and Kingdom Come mark an important transition for The Hidden Cameras: from the public theme of sex to the private themes of love and longing. Colour Of A Man gives us the heartbreaking “it is simpler when I think about being no more than one of his many trophies.”
In anyone else’s hands, Do I Belong’s “waiting all day by the telephone, wondering if you’re going to call” would sound banal, but the juddering tempo and the expressiveness of Gibb’s voice lends it an unexpected poignancy. And where his earlier depictions of the love object as a Christ figure may have seemed wilfully provocative or even mawkish, Kingdom Come gives us a far richer parallel between the return of an absent lover and the second coming: “Does he come today or do I wait for him to come… will he have the key to the lock of Kingdom Come?”
Most arresting of all are Walk On and the title track: two long, dramatic songs which represent the greatest departure so far from the old Hidden Cameras sound. Walk On takes the Spectorish production of their debut album The Smell Of Our Own and pushes it much, much further. The huge, multi-textured brassy noise sounds like ’60s orchestral pop remade to fill a Gothic cathedral.
Origin: Orphan is even more extraordinary; a howling, mechanistic piece of post-rock in the vein of Godspeed You Black Emperor! Amidst the scratchy, metronomic beat and distorted ’80s power chords, the refrain of “A whore when he sleeps / A whore when he dreams” sounds simultaneously terrifying and ecstatic.
In spite of the poppiness of old, The Hidden Cameras have never given the listener a completely easy ride. The most syrupy sounds have often been accompanied by dark, visceral lyrical themes; songs have veered between ear candy and harsh atonality; and Gibb’s depictions of sex have challenged easy liberal perceptions of clean, cuddly gays by veering into the world of fetish and radical politics. For this reason it should come as no surprise that Origin: Orphan pushes boundaries. Who, though, would have expected a work of quite such maturity and power?