Assured and individual, this debut takes theatrical transgression beyond the dressing-up box and into the music
Pop music has always been partly a visual medium. But whereas in the past fans of Soft Cell, one of Walt Disco’s shiny spiritual progenitors, would have had to rely on record sleeves, glossy magazine shots and the odd Top Of The Pops appearance to excite the eye, nowadays there are fans who consume all their music through YouTube and Vimeo, and to those people Walt Disco are, frankly, a gift.
Pick a video at random, and the sextet are liable to be dolled up in some warpaint-smothered abstract glam, looking as though The Mighty Boosh’s Vince Noir had started managing a volleyball team. The sartorial influences are clear, from David Bowie and Roxy Music (especially Brian Eno, whose feather boa seems to have tickled vocalist James Potter in every shot), to New York Dolls and a whole roster of new romantics, and there’s a healthy post-gender sensibility at play: the new rule is, wear whatever you please… so long as it’s spectacular!
But for most of us, visuals will always take second place to the music no matter how much riotous fun they are, and it’s pleasing that, like the creators of the best queer pop throughout history, Walt Disco take the theatrical transgression beyond the dressing-up box and into the music. A proscenium archness is applied like thick greasepaint at every conceivable point. At its simplest, this means a camp thespian formalism to the performances. How Cool Are You? opens with a sneering “la la la” refrain which could have backed the emcee from Cabaret, and the song is suitably world-weary and worldly wise, rather cutely rhyming “leather clothes” with “clever pose”. Cut Your Hair is a wonky new wave track from an alternative universe where gusty Duran Duran songs were backed by Oingo Boingo, and its performative bluster is essentially a weaponised version of parent-confusing in Oh! You Pretty Things, with the sparkle-barked throw-down “You say we’re stupid, I say you’re old/ Since when did you grow so stupidly cold?”. The track has a scribbled little guitar solo, which is so drenched in post-production effects it owes more to Skrillex than Jimi Hendrix.
In this, it is typical of the whole album. If Unlearning were a person there would be not one inch of natural flesh on display, everything is treated, tinted, tweaked and tucked. Selfish Lover is a sheeny plastic banger blitzed by FX, a dizzying hi-NRG discolage of Sparks and Japan, whilst Be An Actor has a mutant rubbery bass which could have come from My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, with an ultra-Bowie vocal (presumably the actor in question is cracked). Whilst this can make for an intense, and intensely contemporary, album some of the ersatz sonics can grate, and the vocals sometimes leap from the studied and theatrical and land in the pantomime where even Adam Ant might start to consider reining it in. If you want to know what a wounded elk sounds like singing in the shower after a bottle of mescal, check out the vocal on Timeline, which honks out a preposterous torch song which isn’t a thousand curtain calls away from something like Please Release Me.
Even in this, the album is knowing, marking the half-way point with an instrumental entr’acte entitled The Costume Change, and thereafter the tone is more refined (though no less tragic, as the blasted torch song Those Kept Close can testify, with its auto-tuned cries of despair echoing in the background). The last two tracks on the album are amongst the most effective. Macilent is a masterclass in camp dominion, a Sisters Of Mercy/Depeche Mode industro-clang, listening to which it is impossible not to visualise oil barrels being beaten in an aircraft hangar, before If I Had A Perfect Life descends into the seventh circle of distraction, with a V/Vm damned piano leading the band of into the wings as the cosmic houselights come back up.
For some the relentless artificiality of this album will make it hard going, and is likely that Walt Disco will make better records, but as a debut this is assured, individual, and liable to incite a thousand arguments about teenage clothing choices. Like all the best pop music.