Given the prominence of angry white men with feelings of disenfranchisement taking to the streets this year, toxic masculinity feels like a prescient topic for exploration — and that's exactly what Australian singer-songwriter Alex Cameron does on his second full-length release, Forced Witness.
Cameron does it with originality, at least on the lyrical side — much of the album seems to be a sort of character study, as he inhabits the minds of fictional men who could be described as washed-up, pathetic or aggressive. There's dark and arresting first-person storytelling going on here, from the imagined relationship in album opener and first single "Candy May," in which the titular girlfriend is called "a worthless piece of shit," through to "Electric Figs," where a country boy protagonist laments being stuck in the city with people he describes as "pigs." In short, Cameron doesn't soften anything here.
The album's sound goes along with this, apparently drawing on the ultra-masculine rock music of the early '80s to go along with the types of men evoked in the lyrics. It's a fitting aesthetic choice, but unfortunately, it's also the album's stumbling block: Forced Witness is perhaps too heavily grounded in the sounds of the decade, to the point that a "heard it before" spectre hangs over the album.
Cameron definitely has an eye for sonic detail, from the use of saxophonist Roy Molloy to the warm, poppy tones of an electric piano. Yet, there's just a little too much musical pastiche. "True Lies," on which Cameron's character lyrically catfishes a woman on the internet, feels too much like an ironic internet-age Bruce Springsteen. At least (faithful to Springsteen) it has a climax; others, like "The Hacienda," get bogged down in repetition, not to mention that the country-blues ditty feels somewhat gimmicky.
On previous album Jumping the Shark, Cameron used electronic sounds in service of a certain freshness, and bombastic contemporaries of Cameron like Jack Ladder and Kirin J. Callinan (both also Australian) have done the same. Even just a hint of that would provide some relief from the deluge of retro here.
Despite all this, there are major highlights — "Marlon Brando" is catchy and glistening, with biting juxtaposition between its upbeat tone and bitter words. Even if the excuse is that he's "in character," Cameron could probably skip invoking a certain anti-gay f-word (it's not really a good look on straight artists, even if it's in service of critique), but that aside, the track works. "Candy May" bursts with emotion, with a swaggering but anguished disposition. And the use of Angel Olsen for a classic his'n'hers pop duet, complete with emotional tension, is inspired. Moments like that save the album from the perils of too many nostalgic noises. (Secretly Canadian)