Callinan takes the piss with love and only love.
Wounded lounge lizard and white Jesus stand-in Father John Misty accidentally made some great pop music this year. Not his searing, excessive Pure Comedy, but a series of tracks called “Generic Pop Songs.” They were essentially Father John’s sonic middle fingers to his time co-writing with major pop stars, but, funny thing, they were actually pretty great. Despite railing against pop stars as “prisoners,” FJM’s appreciation for making a great, catchy tune came through loud and clear. Like all masters of pastiche, these songs were taking the piss but also had a deep understanding and love of the thing they were ridiculing. This is what separates tired satire and note-perfect parody. And few pop albums in recent memory have come from a well of love and ridiculousness as deep and insane as Bravado.
Australian prankster Kirin J Callinan was clear in his intentions for Bravado: a famously silly love letter to ’80s pop. The work of post-Genesis (do you remember Mike and the Mechanics? Callinan does) chart toppers looms large, as does EDM and glossy piano ballads. It is so very, very, very, very dumb and opulent, but, like Ween or Weird Al, Callinan never lets it get in the way of great music.
Bravado, for its credit on the schlocky side, is the second funniest album of 2017 (behind Neil Cicierega’s brilliant Mouth Moods). The massive “Big Enough” has Callinan playing an outlaw doing battle with his cowboy rival, but starts with Callinan eating his horse with a deadpan croon. Callinan also rattles off every country he can think of during the bridge in an utterly bonkers plea for brotherhood. That’s not to mention his unhinged wailing during the first chorus, which brings any levity the song had crashing to the ground with laughter. “This Whole Town” is an exceptionally direct endorsement of promiscuity that would make the Weeknd blush (“I could go down on this whole town…I swipe right on the face of love”). Best of all is “Live Each Day,” a mad send-up of Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying.” Callinan tries to carpe diem his way through the track, unable to remember if he got his life advice from his dying dad or a “fridge magnet.” His character follows the sage wisdom to his best, dancing with his lover and enjoying the heck out of a sandwich. “Truly loved that sandwich!” And the chorus, of course, has Callinan urging us all to “shrug off the urge to systematically kill.”
All of this would be for not if Callinan wasn’t spot on with his homages. If it wasn’t for that completely insane screaming during “Big Enough,” the thumping electronics would be right at home at a David Guetta show. The slow-mo romance of “Telling Me This” is boosted by glossy pianos that would have found their way into any Michael McDonald record. The way-too-long build in “Friend of Lindy Morrison” sounds like an SNL joke, but it also lands near perfectly when the song does burst into horns and clapping drums.
And Bravado at its best doesn’t just make note-perfect pastiches, but creates pop master-strokes that even beat out the heroes Callinan worships/laughs at. The title track is a chugging, genuinely beautiful and touching song that scrapes down to the core of Callinan. He wonders about morality, God and his own self-confidence in a surprisingly vulnerable way. And the way he sings “Bravadoooooooo” just as the music fades is a magical moment in the pop canon unto itself. Even better is “S.A.D.” a strong contender for song of the year. That is an acronym, standing for “Song About Drugs.” It’s Callinan pulling at the DNA of pop music like silly putty, placing wonky key changes in the chorus without a hint of discomfort. With the constantly shifting background and Callinan’s focus warping and floating in and out of coherence, it’s a deeply confounding experience. It’s as addictive as the title would suggest, but there’s an ever present sense of unease. Or as Callinan would put it, “Wrapped up in plastic/ Thrown down the stairs/ Feeling fantastic.”
That’s perhaps the best badge of honor Callinan could get. It’s quite possible that much of Bravado could be played at the club, with only more nuanced patrons wondering what the fuck was going on. And, more importantly, his skits never become too serious or sneering. He stands proudly beside Ween and Zappa as musical tricksters, not only making us laugh but making unapologetically fantastic music. He takes the piss with love and only love.