There’s been a certain fragmentation in gay culture in recent years. The old centres are breaking up. You can see it in the erosion of the old gay precincts in Sydney and Melbourne: the places we gather now are floating, semi-regular parties rather than permanent venues. The emphasis now is on sub-cultures: gay identity and its cultural references are more varied. With their wonderful first albums, two young Australian musicians – Ryan, I and Brett Every – take advantage of this environment to forge new gay sensibilities.
Ryan, I has made his first album Roughhouse available for download through a Kickstarter campaign. Brett Every released his first album Camping Out in 2008: it and his three subsequent albums are available through his website. In very different ways, both artists put their sexuality at the centre of their worldview. As opposed to Sam Smith, who carefully avoids the male pronoun on his debut, both Ryan and Every clearly address love songs to men. The cover of Camping Out shows two men’s suits holding hands.The cover of Camping Out shows two men’s suits, their sleeves holding hands. One of the big philosophical statements on Roughhouse, the song “F-A-G”, begins with the lines, “Everyone is gay and everyone smokes pot/Maybe that’s an overstatement but there’s a whole fucking lot.”
Some of the differences in the two artists’ approaches can be understood through their influences. One of Ryan’s heroes is Liz Phair, with whom he shares a deadpan, often barbed attitude to mating and dating: he produced Roughhouse with Casey Rice, who played guitar on Phair’s Exile In Guyville, sealing this spiritual connection. Phair’s influence can be heard in other ways on the album: Ryan’s use of gnomic fragments (the “reality cheque” pun on “Thrills! Spills! Bills!”; the sudden blast of noise on “Critique”), the dinky sounds (the drum machine and electric handclaps on “Death Bed Bride”) that honour this music’s birth in a home studio. The album closes with “The Guru’s Shoes”, an eclectic litany of cultural touchstones: River Phoenix, Madonna, Frank N Furter, the second season of Twin Peaks. Ryan asserts his relationship to these influences while acknowledging his distance from them: he’s not in Hollywood, but “in the backseat/moving from Blackalls Park”.
Every has a very different set of cultural references. On “Devereaux” – named for Blanche, the man-hungry senior citizen on The Golden Girls – he distils them into three perfect lines – “Tom Waits/Bette Midler/and they’re singing the same song”. (He could be referring to “Shiver Me Timbers” or this duet.) Every’s musical approach – the relaxed nightclub arrangements, with trumpet floating over guitar, piano and drums – owes a lot to Waits’ 1970s balladry. His magpie approach to covers (Camping Out includes both Cyndi Lauper’s “Dear John” and Rodgers and Hart’s “He Was Too Good to Me”) and his appreciation of camp reflect Midler’s influence. However, he avoids Waits’ bathetic excesses in his nightclub mode: he employs his baritone more like Leonard Cohen (and like Cohen often sweetens it with female backing vocals) to create a tone of tender understatement. Like Ryan, he acknowledges his antipodean distance from his American sources: the Waits/Midler song is heard at a distance, from a neighbour’s apartment; when (on “Swaying”) he compares a lover to July, he immediately qualifies it with “in the Northern Hemisphere”.
There are differences too in temperament. There’s a restlessness to Ryan’s music, and an avidity: no two arrangements on Roughhouse are the same, and he’s constantly finding new sounds to add to them – whether harp or organ or vocoder or gong – to mark them out from one another. This is reflected in the songs thematically: the album opens with the song “Identity Theft”, in which an ominous piano figure and elaborate drum patterns give way to a pounding chorus and the words “Do you have something to hide?” Identity here is a mask that people adopt; Ryan’s vocal moves from resigned distrust to frenzied accusation. The songs that follow posit different moods and identities: in “Expecting” he dreams about being pregnant and links it to the act of songwriting; in “Postcards from October” he is bereft, waiting to hear from his lover; in “The Guru’s Shoes” he’s a child fantasising about Hollywood stardom. It’s mercurial music, comfortable with extremes of emotion.
Every is more settled; his persona is more fixed. The arrangements on Camping Out vary much less than on Roughhouse. Every’s approach is to create a distinct sound world: piano, guitar, drums and trumpet, foregrounding his deep voice. His songs usually address lovers and as a singer he combines effortless sincerity – there’s a moving directness of address to lines like “William, I’ve been wondering if we can start again” – with a wry sense of humour (the sexy, shared recollection of a night spent outdoors –”Your shirt was so thin, it was no shirt at all” – on “How Still the Night”). The album casts a gentle spell; every so often, Every forgoes the rhythm section, to slow the pace, to draw you in closer. Identity is not asserted in a hostile environment, as on Roughhouse, but realised in relationship with others. Even the one night stand described on “Sailor” is seen in terms of intimacy. Every manages something notoriously difficult for artists: he makes contentment interesting. The domestic bliss he describes is detailed, ready to compromise, luminous with sensory impressions.
In their very different ways, Ryan, I and Brett Every are engaged in the same work: to articulate a worldview in music. Both put sexuality at the centre of this worldview; simply, as a given. Both are explicit about their influences, claiming them while acknowledging the gap between them and their heroes. Both are self-conscious in the best sense: they know who they are, they know what they love, and they know what they are trying to achieve. It’s thrilling to hear their intelligence and their good, open hearts; thrilling to hear the possibilities they embody for gay life and gay culture. Camping Out is now six years old: it’s still one of my favourite albums of this young century. I’ve been living with Roughhouse for a week and to me it already feels like a classic. Every has released three albums since; Ryan is just getting started. I can’t wait to hear what they do next.