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Jake Shears - Jake Shears Music Album Reviews

The Scissor Sisters frontman’s solo debut could’ve been a disaster: A pop star moseys down to New Orleans to find “real music.” But if you’re not a stickler for authenticity, it’s actually irresistible.

In his existential 1963 novel City of Night, which follows a male sex worker hustling his way across America after dark, John Rechy maps out the four waves of revelers drawn to New Orleans for Mardi Gras: First come the hustlers and their “lean young faces… with maybe guitars and patched bags if any,” hitchhiking or via Greyhound. Next, the “restless queens” who don drag to “challenge—and, Maybe, for an instant, be acknowledged by—the despising, arrogant, apathetic world that produced them and exiled them.” After them, the deluge of “tired richmen, the tired richwomen… and the other Young men and women—equally curious but not as defiant.” Finally, there are the inevitable “busloads of carefully chartered tours” in a “determined pilgrimage to Frantic Happiness.”

Similar waves crashed over postmillennial Brooklyn. The sedimentary layers of modern gentrification, after all, tend to go: artists and queer people, then tastemakers, then tourists. Jake Shears and his fellow Scissor Sisters arrived in the borough during the first phase and came up through its electroclash scene but quickly changed costumes, sewing the sincere glam of Peter Allen and the sleaze of the Skatt Bros into electro-disco confections both tacky and catchy. “Frantic happiness” turns out to be an apt description of what they had to offer, and their audience grew in waves much like Rechy’s—particularly in Europe, where they were for a moment the brightest stars in the firmament. Americans, at least those who didn’t live in the night cities, mostly resisted their charms. They were simply too much.

City of Night ends with a spectacular psychological breakdown, and to hear Shears tell it in Boys Keep Swinging, his recent memoir, so did Scissor Sisters. He moved to New Orleans to write that book and this debut solo album. Jake Shears could have been an insufferable disaster: A pop star cleans up and moseys on down to New Orleans to find real music, man, and, in its appropriated authenticity, himself. It could have been a hodgepodge of Lestat and “Treme,” a “New Orleans state of mind” groaner, a “problematic” post-Lemonade whitewash. It could have been more flotsam dredged up by the dispiriting (and gentrification-adjacent) wave of pop stars gone rootsy—Timberlake’s woods, Kanye’s frontier, the rural dives of Lady Gaga’s Joanne.

Instead, Jake Shears is a breeze, with members of My Morning Jacket and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band gathering to lay down the tracks in single takes. The result is pretty irresistible, as long as you’re not looking for authenticity, and if you don’t mind vocals that sound like a honky-tonk take on jazz hands deployed in the service of lyrics like “Cuz baby I love you/More than the trash can.” (And that’s a rave, not a read; for Shears, nothing succeeds like excess.) He sells the hell out of “S.O.B.” and “Clothes Off,” tracks that could be cleverer as they shimmy in the shadows of Bourbon Street, rather than on the throbbing floor of the Mineshaft, but mostly do the trick. In the grim but game “Creep City,” he shakes it Chaka-style during verses that descend like “Tell Me Something Good,” if the only good news on offer were that death and its marching band will come for us all someday. “The Bruiser” is a leering “Nightclubbing” manqué that sounds unconvincingly masc, which might be the point; speaking of butch identity, the dude in “Big Bushy Mustache” sure would like to embrace his, if only his girlfriend would let him. Something tells me his desire for “a silky carpet with the drapes to match” and a “neon pink Mustang” might be queering the deal.

Tracks like “Good Friends” carry on Scissor Sisters’ inimitable legacy of imaginary love themes to Muppet movies in which Kermit falls for Fozzie. Three ballads are among the best Shears has ever made: “Everything I’ll Ever Need” is a banjo-and-Bee Gees showstopper. “All for What” glows with a backwoods glamor, like Roxy Music using slide guitars in place of synths. And “Palace in the Sky” is so City of Night that if revelers don’t end up humming it while their coke-ruined noses drip blood into strangers’ bathroom sinks, I’ll eat Shears’ feather boa.

It’s true, Jake Shears is performative. It might veer into appropriation here and there, particularly in its closer, “Mississippi Delta (I’m Your Man).” But faux isn’t always false. After calling New Orleans almost everything else, Rechy praised the city as a “Pied Piper playing a multikeyed tune to varikeyed ears.” Generations later, it’s a hell of a good time hearing Shears sing along.

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