SSION get called many things — art-punkers, glam-rockers, faggots — all of which are at once accurate descriptors and wholly inadequate. They’re what the Haus of Gaga wishes it could produce, but hey — that’s the difference between “real” and “manufactured” weirdness, right? Well, maybe. I’d argue that the brand of queer punk-pop that Cody Critcheloe’s motley crew of Kansas City queens have to offer is also injected with a certain amount of artifice as well, but instead of “I’m a motorcycle, look at me, I’m so fucking strange,” it’s a more knowing duplicity that feels artful rather than manipulative. Bent, the band’s newest record, is brazenly shallow pop music, aware of and confident in its insubstantiality and general tackiness. And so opener “Listen 2 the Grrrls” functions well as a statement of purpose for the group: “1-900-PUNK-PUNK-PUNK/ What the fuck rhymes with punk?”
What rhymes with punk, indeed. SSION’s answer to that question is decisive: everything. Taking cues equally from G.G. Allin’s vulgarity and Madonna’s decadence, the band happily dwells in gaudy territory — a “Luvvbazaar,” if you will. That song is a perfect example of the band’s tendency to take pop conventions — which, at the moment, consist of wonky synths that vaguely conjure associations with dubstep — and, instead of deconstructing them or turning them upside-down, wholly embrace them while maintaining a bit of a derisive smirk. There’s irony in the song’s deliriously catchy repetition of the title (clearly manifested in that glaring typographical contrivance), but I’m not sure if “lookin’ for love in a love bazaar” is an ostensibly stupid image or, well, a truly stupid one. More importantly, I’m not entirely certain that it matters, not when the track sounds like a fantastically guilty pleasure that wouldn’t be out of place on Britney Spears’ Blackout.
Much of the album behaves along these lines, with songs like “Earthquake” and “My Love Grows in the Dark” essentially acting on good faith that even the worst clichés in pop can be made awesome if they’re delivered with gusto. Knowing SSION’s penchant for extravagance, this approach is hardly surprising, but its great success is quite unexpected. Every song here is glossy, neon-drenched, and irrepressibly groovy, save for “Feelz Good (4-Evr),” the one moment where the band steps into murkier waters. The pulse slows down considerably, but the effect is no less compelling; when an enormous, inhuman beast of a voice repeats the song’s refrain of “feels good/ good forever” over and over again, it’s as if the group has been transformed into a bunch of disco-inhabiting zombies. That bite is precisely what’s missing from the record’s lone misstep, the house pastiche “Nothing Happens At Nite,” which cops elements of classic disco and house without adding much notable flavor of its own. Faithfulness, it would appear, is not quite the same thing as earnestness — which, when combined with the winking knowingness that is practically required from anything so boldly stylized, allows for the supreme confidence that makes this album such an exhilarating listen.
That Bent seems like a fashionable record at the moment is curious — the witch house camp’s visual sense is closely aligned with Cody Critcheloe’s distinctive artwork, and 1980s pop deconstructionism is certainly experiencing a particularly strong renaissance right now. But SSION never come across as mere trendhoppers, despite their affinity for creating songs that fit neatly into various genre templates — they always mean what they say (even if they know that it’s dumb and superficial), or at least their artistic selves do. Maybe Critcheloe enjoys doing poppers on the treadmill, as he sings on the seedy “Blonde With U”; maybe not. How this gang of merry rainbow flag-burners exists outside of their work is entirely besides the point. For at least 43 minutes, they present a convincing façade that closely resembles the portrait of Critcheloe on the album’s cover: over-the-top, fabulous, and most definitely cracked.