I’m less of a music snob than you likely believe me to be; in fact, if you’d asked me two months ago, I probably would have confused the Scissor Sisters with Le Tigre or some other hazily riot grrl band. On a whim I grabbed their first two albums, which quickly became my personal soundtrack as I danced around my apartment, packed it up, moved to my new one, stomped through the streets of Cambridge, sat in coffeeshops around Harvard Square tapping my foot wildly, &co&co. It was as if I’d returned to my old haunt—The Wave, in Norfolk, and found myself woozy and suddenly dancing on stage. Fortunately, the sheer fun of listening to the band dispelled the melancholy of homesickness, and I eagerly anticipated their new one—enter Night Work. Whether you’ve never heard of them—or you have—or you hate them—or you hate music on principle—you should feel obligated to allow this album at least two listens, and come to the revelation that no other album will as perfectly slide into the discomforting heat and ennui of this summer.
Imagine your favorite dance-band revisiting Footloose, Dirty Dancing, and Flashdance, tossing in a stash of poppers and meth, twisting it with a healthy dose of anonymous semen, and finally emerging from that skeezy back-alley to keep on dancing. This is, without question, a rather naughty album; one to dance to, certainly, but more importantly, one to fuck to. It’s got the energy and the Velveeta-drip of the 80s but brings with it the tainted despair of our post-romance, post-social, post-internet age. The album runneth over with runaways, hookers, “sexual gladiators” (as Ian McKellen so wisely says on the album’s final track), tweakers, dirty dancers, terrifyingly deluded stalkers, and lovers who will almost certainly never see one another again (or if they do, say on the T for instance, they’ll studiously avoid one another’s eyes and continue to cruise the other passengers). The opening track (“Night Work”) is naively narrated by a boy who believes he can escape the brokenness of his home life by catching the midnight train in time to “break my back in the moonlight”—someone (the boy himself?) reminds him, when a life of prostitution doesn’t generate golden dreams, that “this is what you asked for.” The song maintains a frantic pace, and one gets the sense that if you aren’t dancing your self into mindless exhaustion, you’ll be crying your eyes out, so you may as well remain in that state of self-delusion. Two of the other tracks in the first half of the album—“Whole New Way” and “Any Which Way”—find Jake Shears and the band doing their best Bee Gees impression, as they tell tales of fabulous sex (with only a hint of threat, as in “WNW,” where the lover suggests that if his partner doesn’t enjoy his newfound techniques, “this time we’re through”) and greedy desperation. Kylie Minogue evidently provides backing vocals for the latter track (and performed with the band on the song at Glastonbury recently), and Ana Matronic’s spoken verse provides the album’s most comic moment—“Baby, when I was taking my panty hose out of their egg this evening, I thought, I’m gonna find that man that’s the right shade of bottle tan—a man that smells like cocoa butter and cash.” Nothing wrong with seeking a little financial security by offering your body up ‘any which way’ to some rich dude with a yacht, right?
The middle section drags a bit for my tastes—“Harder You Get” and “Running Out” are good tracks, but don’t have the punch of the album’s best moments. I could always grow into them—they’ve already started attaching to me, and, for example, I thought “Skin Tight” was dreadful on my first listen—now I think it may be one of the most innovative, heartfelt tracks of the album. “Something Like This” brings the latter half of Night Work in with a bang—it’s a catchy, accessible, powerfully danceable ode to that awkward pause in the club where you think you might have a chance with someone who’d been dancing nearby. Studded with robotic vocals, beeps and boops, it feels very of-the-times (re: the sort of cyborg-esque aesthetic of pop music in the 00s), but hearkens backwards just enough to save it from instantly dating itself.
The three tracks that follow it—“Skin This Cat,” “Skin Tight,” and “Sex and Violence”—seem a sort of triad. “Skin This Cat” is Ana Matronic’s only lead song, and though a bit repetitive for my tastes, I can’t seem to get my fill of her sultry vocals and the sort of wonderfully sensual and aggressive lyrics (“You’re not the first tom to walk my floor, so get around the block a few times more”). After instructing her ‘tom’ in the million ways to skin her cat, we’re led into “Skin Tight”—which Jake Shears claims is about ‘being in love,’ but seems to me to be sung by a dude trying to get his bottom to go bareback. You heard it here, first—I think “Skin Tight” is totally a song for the bug-chaser community. I mean, come on—of course it’s a bit romantic to want there to be “nothing sliding between you and I”—but why use innuendo suggesting that your partner fits you like a “glove” (so obviously slang for condom) and will “wrap me in your love” (again, rather than the condom)—and wishing he’d be in a position where “I can’t peel it back.” Not to mention the lines talking about sexual symbiosis for eternity—sounds rather evocative of the logic behind those subsets of the gay community that view HIV as a rite of passage or some sort of VIP group. Maybe it really is about being in love—maybe it’s about no longer fearing the fidelity of your partner—to the point that you don’t need to use protection. But the references to drugs in the song suggest something seedier (literally) to me.
In any case, it’s a beautifully sung, lyrically clever/ambiguous track that so perfectly brings to mind heart-wrenching dance-ballads of the 80s. Without gap, the track leads into “Sex and Violence,” seemingly sung by a stalker to his victim—a man who will “never let you see” that sex and violence walk in hand—“one is just the other” and wants to know if anyone knows exactly where his victim is at that moment. It’s got a driving beat, eerie vocals, and creepy lyrics a la “I’ll Be Watching You.” The final tracks—“Night Life” and “Invisible Light” seem to bring the album full circle. “Night Life” feels almost like a bookend to “Night Work”—this time, it’s a girl from the suburbs who knows nothing about the dark underworld of the ‘nightlife’ and seeks escape in things that “some say [are] worthless” and that might “break your spirit.”
“Invisible Light” seems to be the anthem bringing all of the dark, desperate cast together into an ostensibly purifying light. Ian McKellen narrates a middle verse, beseeching them all to “come into the light; the invisible light”—which is otherwise imaged in the song as something that will work to redeem the singer. Both this and “Any Which Way” throw back to MJ’s “Thriller”—a provocative tribute, though I can’t say I believe that MJ or his estate would be pleased with possibly the gayest contemporary music group paying homage to his work on their decidedly trannylicious new album. It’s a ridiculously infectious song and the perfect closer to an album that revels in the margins—the invisible spaces—of experience; that glorifies and implicitly critiques the soiled nightlife it inhabits. Is there anyone making music now more unabashedly faggy than this band? Sure, we’ve got our icons—we have Kylie and Madonna and Gaga—but who else takes pride in writing a song devoted to anal sex (“Whole New Way”) or allows that maybe sex work—night work—,drug use, anonymous sex, kinky desires, etc. might not entirely dissolve the humanity of the person who participates in it? The faggotry—and I don’t quite think any other word will suffice (not to mention, I love reclaiming that razorblade of an insult)—of the band and of the album is in and of itself incredibly transgressive, particularly in relation to their musical accessibility and their potent European success. This is a band, and a truly fantastic album, that speaks to the licentiousness and the terror and the joy and the fragmentation of being a sexual being in our particular historical moment—this, the age of the post-post-post-post-modern (or whatever it is we’re calling it these days)—without limiting it to some ridiculous position of politics or propaganda or attempting to identify it as a discrete experience or category.
But best of all, it’s simply a high-energy, highly-catchy, highly-clever summer album. You can dive into the profundity of the lyrics and the world the album creates, or you can simply push your earbuds in and enjoy the ride. Just know that the ride probably involves a crimson convertible with the top down and a hefty serving of cocoa butter…