On paper, Alex Cameron doesn’t make much sense. In person, Alex Cameron still doesn’t make much sense. How many smouldering, Oceanic, age unspecific performers do we have? (Barring Lorde, of course). How many of them dress themselves up in a beguiling high concept irony, closer to Andy Kaufman than Weird Al? And yes, although his genre is the eternally trad 80s inspired synthpop, it leans closer to the kind of thing you’d hear on a Superdrug radio playlist, sandwiched between Bruce Springsteen and ‘I Ran (So Far Away)’. Add a bearded saxophonist-cum- business partner into the mix and the whole equation gets more baffling.
His debut album, Jumping the Shark (released in 2013, then again in 2014, then again in 2016) was shitty sounding music for shitty people. An ambitious, 8 song distillation of the Alex Cameron brand, it brimmed with personality across its brisk 30 minute runtime, down the lounge singer fake wrinkles on the cover and the lyrics oozing tragicomedy (‘I make so much money, I swear I never get any older’ says the Trumpian protagonist on ‘Real Bad Looking’). Every song was a complete statement, tales of failure and worthless people. It was also a defiantly minor work, one that left me curious as to where he would go from here.
Well, if you’re Alex Cameron, you double or nothing. Following a surprise supporting slot for The Killers (handpicked by Brandon Flowers), his new album Forced Witness is longer, the production glossier, the characters more disgusting. A duet with indie-queen Angel Olsen and a Jemima Kirke (from Lena Dunham’s Girls) directed video for lead single Stranger’s Kiss both point to an increased ambition. And, as proved by tonight’s gig at Thekla, Forced Witness is substantially more listenable than Jumping the Shark, which at times sounded like it was being made on a broken Casio.
Playing an economical 13 song setlist leaning heavily off his new album, Cameron’s entourage was well rehearsed and enormous fun. His voice has developed muscle across his 5 years of touring and he exuded the ease which comes with that. Fan favourite ‘The Comeback’ had a thrilling energy to it, like the best song John Hughes never used. ‘The Chihuahua’ was sweetly depressing, its bleak bridge ‘Chasing pussy online/Cause the dog's feeling fine and he needs it’ delivered with a pathos which almost makes you pity the wanker at the centre of it all. Stripper heist story ‘Runnin’ Outta Luck’ had a noirish drama which worked even better live than on record, and ‘Real Lies’ was surprisingly touching in its depiction of an online porn obsessive. In between each song were amusing tidbits of stage banter, which varied from saxophonist Roy Molloy critically analysing the stool on which he was sat, to Cameron explaining the dangers of chihuahua pack attacks in Phoenix, Arizona.
In the press release for Forced Witness, Cameron talked about assessing the ‘straight, white male’, and if Cameron didn’t have such a keen eye for satire, some of the lyrics could come across as objectionable. On penultimate song Marlon Brando, the threat ‘You tell that little faggot call me faggot one more time’ could come across as hateful were it not coming from such a sad place (a misogynist loser who feels like Brando ‘circa 1999’). It’s hard to tell how much the audience, who appeared to take great joy in belting the slur, understood that.
On my way home from the gig, it dawned upon me what made this strange show work. Of all artists writing about bad people, Alex Cameron is the one who feels most 2018 out of them all. When touring keyboardist Holiday Sidewinder sings ‘They made a meme out of my legacy’, it feels like now. And the anti-hero of ‘Studmuffin96’ and his attempts to bed a 16 year old online would be more abhorrent if his brand of perversion didn’t feel so relevant. Through all the layers of mystique and irony, Cameron manages to humanise, if not quite sympathise with the despicable people in his songs, a tough challenge in our post-MeToo climate. As summed up on the mission statement album closer, ‘There ain't no politics in love’. Empathy is the way forward, even if it means facing up to some ugly sides of humanity on the way.