21st Century Sleaze Takes Center Stage on this Catchy Soft-rock Record
Alex Cameron wants you to know that he isn’t as he appears. With a music career built on guises and smooth talking characters, the Australian has garnered attention for his innovative use of lyrics and storytelling. After signing to Secretly Canadian last year, Cameron has toured in support of Kevin Morby and Mac DeMarco. With Forced Witness, Cameron’s second release, the singer ventures into a Tom Waits levels of observation. Characters’ inner dialogue spools out of his crooning mouth, effortlessly hanging over danceable soft rock and ’80s era groovy synth arrangements. With a voice like Nick Cave’s, the hooks of Bruce Springsteen, and the musical balladry of Tom Petty, Alex Cameron has carved out a niche of observational songwriting unlike anyone before him.
Yet, Cameron is an enigma. He’s young and not at all bad looking, yet he has been known to don wrinkles and wigs to appear elderly (all part of the shtick of 2014’s ironically titled Jumping the Shark). His website (which has since been taken down) had this clunky, virus-ridden feel and a slovenly interface with intentional popup ads to match — although it isn’t quite the same, his Facebook posts echo a similar voice. In a letter accompanying the review copy of the album, he told members of the press that he worked as an Investigator’s assistant in a public law office, where he would “receive information about hideous unthinkable acts allegedly committed by those who should’ve known better.” He held a job at a pizza restaurant for years, despite having Celiac Disease. The sheer amount of information on Cameron makes it hard to discern truth from fiction, only adding to the mystique of the music. He’s the most unreliable of narrators.
His songs inhabit the personae of everyday people, good and bad, wholesome and heartless. Cameron takes on the role of a witness: a person on the street who just cannot look away, forced to watch the trainwreck take place. At first glance, these “character portraits” are abrasive and discomforting, a slew of coarse one-liners that wring the heart of any compassion. But when you move past the catchy façade of each song’s musical structure, a more confessional side to these subjects emerges.
The lyrics, whimsical and uniquely direct, are borderline genius. Equal parts poetry and parody, Cameron manages to create whole storylines for people within the confines of a catchy-as-hell four-minute track. The cleverness of the writing almost justifies the lewd behavior of his songs’ subjects.
Forced Witness eclipses orthodox pop material and ventures into some groundbreaking territory. What it means to be popular, aging, in love, heartbroken, are all open for discussion. Cameron’s lyrical anguish would be incomplete without “partner in crime” saxophonist Roy Molloy, who provides the silky wails that texture the songs in uncanny ways.
The album’s opener, “Candy May,” is an ode to an abusive lover. The song’s central character, frail and tired, cannot see the relationship in a negative light and is convinced his lover knows him better than himself. One of the darker songs on the album, it is paradoxically one of the catchiest. Over a beat that sounds somewhat recycled, the subject matter of the lyrics shifts from unconditional love to a caustic denial of pain.
“Country Figs” starts on a wonky offbeat and laments the city life. Saxophone punctuates and propels the groove as Cameron confesses, “The worst part about being homeless/is waking up from a dirty wet dream/with a lap full of cum and a head full of steam.” The song’s fiery lyrics long for life in the countryside, away from the people in the city “who speak like pigs.” The groove descends into a smooth jam that sounds like it can go on forever, right after Cameron ponders driving into the side of a department store if his woman “won’t say yes.”
Two doomed characters feature in the album’s second single, “Runnin’ Outta Luck.” The twisted relationship between a “man on a mission” and “a stripper out of luck” is the centerpiece of this one, where both know there’s nothing in it. The song’s lyrics describe this modern-day, miserable Bonnie and Clyde pair as an innocent love story. Yet, with further listens more sinister undertones unfurl: “there’s blood on my knuckles, cause there’s money in trunk” shifts the narrative towards a mysterious ending, with the love affair “running out of luck” as it echoes into a faded abyss and transforms into a murky tragedy.
The focal point of Forced Witness emerges in the beautifully tragic “Stranger’s Kiss,” a duet with Angel Olsen. According to Cameron, “Stranger’s Kiss” explores notions of independence in the midst of a breakup: “In life we question our own potential for independence. And the abusive ones will manipulate that doubt into codependency.” This concept, of power dynamics and insecurity, appears in almost every track on the album. “Stranger’s Kiss,” accompanied by a gorgeous video directed by Jemima Kirke, taunts the weaknesses of adoration and presents itself as a soft rock ballad. “Thought I needed buckets of gold/but all I needed was a dirty little pail of tin” punctuates the song’s desperate search for meaning in challenged love.
Although the record takes some warming up to, the work is at once thought provoking and succinct. Cameron doesn’t take himself too seriously, yet he wants you to know these people exist. We are all forced to endure their pain alongside them, for it is the kind of pain that is uniquely universal.