“I know they don’t think that I’ll amount to much
But your love has given me the magic touch
Just put your faith in me and strange as it may seem
I will build a dream for you
As big as I can dream.”
After a seven-year hiatus, a Roy Orbison cover was not what I anticipated when looking forward to SSION’s new album O. Of course, an eerie version of the Lynchian crooner’s take on “Big As I Can Dream” was much appreciated. Somewhere between a lullaby and an auditory hallucination (Are those waves and whale sounds I hear?), the song is certainly an apt introduction to SSION’s unexpected and deliciously chaotic album, which sounds as if SSION’s mastermind Cody Critcheloe tossed all his many disparate musical influences in a blender in an epic act of role model worship.
Overall, O is a journey–a whiplash-inducing, psychedelic or maybe just psychotic one through numerous musical genres, inspirations and even, visuals since Critcheloe created paintings corresponding to each song. His painting for “Big As I Can Dream,” in particular, hints at this sonic odyssey with an image of a gender-fucking Dorothy, ready to go on her Technicolor trip. While Critcheloe explained to numerous publications that the album’s title symbolizes optimism, it also reminds me of that other “o” word–Oz (not that Oz isn’t also optimistic). Essentially, the album sends listeners through a tornado of sounds and visions, coming out on the other end to SSION’s own fantasy world.
More so than the last album Bent, which, though still experimental, was more consistently danceable, O is, at once, pop and punk–a mix often attempted (I’m looking at you, Avril Lavigne), but not always pulled off. Granted, SSION has always straddled the intersection of pop and punk, from “Day Job” on Fools Gold to the constant influence of Courtney Love and Madonna.
Experimenting with vocal manipulation and bizarre sound effects is also nothing new for SSION, but on O, it seems as if this is even more pronounced. As Critcheloe told ArtForum’s Alex Jovanovich, “It has to have that twist for me. It can’t be basic. . . There can be moments of basicness, but I always want to pull in something wretched that can really fuck with the form.” With O, Critcheloe achieves this with sublime results, creating an album that is both beautiful and right at the edge of unlistenable at times. It feels as if you’re being tossed into someone else’s k-hole or were fed a strict diet of Diet Coke, ketamine, Dentyne Ice and Marlboro Lights as prescribed in the songs.
SSION’s style has always reminded me of the day-glo pandemonium in Ryan Trecartin’s video installations. Now, this connection could have been forged years ago when I spotted the artist in the crowd at SSION’s performance at MoMA PS1. However, something about Trecartin’s manic amalgamation of pop culture, the digital, transformational identities and strange sonic landscapes maintains a link to SSION’s creative output. In “Situation Hacker,” published in My 1980s and Other Essays, Wayne Kostenbaum writes about Trecartin’s videos: “Watching them, I face the identity-flux of Internet existence: surfing-as-dwelling. Images evaporate, bleed, spill, metamorphose and explode” (206).
In a similar manner, the sounds on O evaporate, bleed, spill, metamorphose and explode, from song to song and within each track itself. For example, on “Dogs On Asphalt,” Critcheloe does his best Stooges-era Iggy Pop impression, singing about dogs and puppies, while a later song–“Inherit”–would fit nicely on a Fischerspooner album. An upbeat tune like “Comeback” quickly switches into a shortened cover of the Germs’s song “Forming,” with Critcheloe taking on the sneering cadence of Courtney Love from Pretty On The Inside. Sometimes these sudden sonic changes occur within a singular song itself. For instance, the final track “Heaven Is My Thing Again” seems quintessentially SSION with callbacks to an older song “Heaven.” And yet, midway through a lyric, Critcheloe lets out a scream.
With this cut-up sensibility, the entire album seems like a zine in audio form, which is also reflective in the mix of Critcheloe’s many influences that appear in the lyrics and the instrumentation of the songs themselves. As on previous releases, as seen in the cover “Credit In The Straight World,” Hole looms large over the album, particularly in Critcheloe’s vocal inflections on songs like “Forming” and “1980-99,” which also features Hole bandmate Patty Schemel with Sky Ferreira, last seen scratching a rash on Twin Peaks: The Return.
However, more than just featured musicians and vocal rhythms, Critcheloe buries references throughout the lyrics. These are as wide ranging as k.d. lang (“Courting–Constant-Craving” on “1980-99″), Sylvester (“I know it’s not the 70’s, but I’m feeling mighty real” on “Free Lunch (Break)” and David Bowie (“Be my wife, speed of life” on “Inherit”). SSION also cribs entire sections of other band’s songs including the Beatles’s “With A Little Help From My Friends” with the lines “What would I do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me? Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song. I will try not to sing out of key” on “Marc and Me.” With these semi-hidden references, SSION transforms the listening process into a treasure hunt of appropriated material.
Several music reviewers have placed this album’s significance and really, SSION’s entire output within the context of the increasing visibility (read: marketability) of queer music. And of course, SSION has never shied away from being unabashedly queer. Remember “Street Jizz”? O is no different with lyrics speaking of pride parades–“Like passion in your pride parade, I live to love and to get paid. Oh, can’t you hear these faggots scream?”–and gay twins in the fantastical “Marc and Me”: “Looking at you is like looking at me. Looking in a mirror liking what I see.”
But to me, what really makes SSION’s album essential listening is the sonic embodiment of all these numerous role models like a musical version of a teenager’s bedroom wall papered with idols. Of course, we, here at Filthy Dreams, are very invested in role models. For marginalized people, role models are especially important as sources of possibility, self-fashioning, creativity, courage and sometimes, transgression. In Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, Heather Love analyzes the impetus to bond with past cultural and historical figures, describing it, using Carolyn Dinshaw’s words, as a “touch across time.” And this touch is rendered audible on O.
In the unlikely mix of role models on the album, Critcheloe creates a portrait of himself through his musical idols similar to John Waters’s book Role Models. But, and perhaps more importantly, SSION also reflects those thoroughly queer weirdos who grew up adoring both Kylie Minogue and Darby Crash. As Critcheloe told GQ, “Growing up, for me, that was all escapism…That was a saving grace in a way. You’re always revisiting it, because it puts you in that headspace again of something magical.”
And while this escapism can be taken as an apolitical gesture, I would argue it’s not. SSION’s album O features a pervasive the sense of the apocalyptic–whether the blue skies of “At Least The Sky Is Blue,” recalling The Immoralist, or the final ascent or return to heaven in “Heaven Is My Thing Again.” As Kostenbaum says of Trecartin, but relates entirely to O: “His cosmos, not a tranquilizer, presents a terror-spiked forecast. Of apocalypse-as-party. Of psychological evisceration as spiritual exuberance. Of being-at-home as whirling-dervish-danceteria” (208).
Above all, the album has the distinct feeling that Critcheloe is revisiting his influences, as a mushroom cloud threatens in the distance. Róisín Marie Murphy puts it best on SSION’s “The Cruel Twist,” Like I’ve always said: land of the free, home of the rave, from see to shinning CD-R, burn it baby! Put it on repeat and let’s just kill some time at the club while we wait for the world to end…”