In his novella The Diamond As Big As The Ritz, F. Scott Fitzgerald recounts the tale of John T. Unger’s encounter with an all-American plutocratic dynasty whose secret is also the source of their wealth. Our own John O (who is Diamond Rings) also has a story to tell about joining the American aristocracy. Pop aristocracy, in this case, as his sound moves from the lingering in-the-rough-ness of 2010’s Special Affections to the uncertain polish of Free Dimensional (i.e., the presence of big-ticket indie producer Damian Taylor). And his lyrics, which lean to familiar tropes of self-affirmation and of love, deal with the unveiling of a secret — modern culture’s central secret that is to be proclaimed: the authentic self. There are, however, surprising moments where this sheen is punctured through an interesting terminological choice (“You and I can foment/ The perfect moment”), a breaking of the fourth wall (“I’ve been waiting trying to write this song”), or a bell hooks reference.
That 1980s sheen itself manifests both in Free Dimensional’s sonic adaptation of classic synth-pop (Culture Club’s Kissing To Be Clever gets a namedrop) and in John O’s visual adoption of subversive icon Klaus Nomi’s signature sartorial style. Unlike Nomi, however, there’s no hint of the experimental here: just hook after perfect pop hook. That, and the exquisite tension between O’s distinctive vocals, syrupy yet harsh-edged, and synth lines, which are alternately clean, buzzy, and squelchy.
That we have here an exercise in eclectic modern pop rather than pure synth recreationism is evidenced in the crunchy guitar lines of “Runaway Love” — or the unexpected rap interludes (which listeners will find divisive). This fuck-you assertiveness (even in the absence of the “fuck”) proclaims a defiance that chimes with the mainstream pop paradigm (if also nodding to O’s characteristic play across a range of gendered stereotypes). It’s a mood that replaces Special Affections’ dark-edged tint — and, as a further nod to pop’s now-characteristic biographical qualities, closer “Day and Night” is a customary narrative of the travails of touring.
Throughout, however, O retains a quality that I’d describe as adorability, and it’s one that suffuses the album, catching the listener’s sentiment in heartfelt, self-deprecating moments like “A to Z” (“And when the door bells/ My little heart swells/ Pumping iron just for you”). Free Dimensional doesn’t reproduce the simple yet revelatory indie pop voice we heard on Special Affections, but this is an impossible ask for a second album. It makes some moves that will be read as populist, others as unpopular. It’s a beast that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, but that knows very clearly that it wants to speak of what it is. But it’s the fact that the album emerges from these lacunae, between mainstream electro-pop and DIY indie, between declaration and uncertainty, between contemporary knowingness and a complete lack of irony, that imparts its own imperfect je ne sais quoi — and, paradoxically, the hooks don’t hurt. One might quote Fitzgerald: “At any rate, let us love for a while, for a year or so, you and me… there are only diamonds in the whole world, diamonds and perhaps the shabby gift of disillusion.”