Joey Walker Supersoft

[Darling; 2019]

Styles: twink rock, bedroom rock, confessional, glacial, synthetic
Others: Xiu Xiu, Kate Bush, Jenny Hval, Spellling,

I‘d like to take to heart the term “twink rock.” This is the banner that Joey Walker playfully hoists above his work. It’s a title that can only be taken on with a keen self-awareness: one doesn’t exactly make themselves a twink, but is made one; one falls into this role or one notes a proximity, moves closer. Not all identifiers go this way. For instance, queer (the word that serves as the title for Walker’s 2017 debut) is at times both hotly contested and strangely elastic. As a site of identity and a malleable construct, queerness is defined and redefined each time it is picked up, whether it’s to be reclaimed or cast off.

We could say the same for any umbrella term like twink, the difference being that it only holds weight inasmuch as the figure in question shares more with our platonic ideal of a twink than not. Maybe we can expand the space for a slightly bulkier body type, a little patch of peach fuzz, or a haircut currently en vogue, but it won’t bend by much, and the staying power of such alterations is not guaranteed. The term itself is as fragile as the body it adorns is perceived to be. As both a diminutive and a fetishized ideal, there’s a standard of twink-ness to uphold.

But even in reclaiming it, there’s a bit of reticence (from Walker’s press release: “Maybe he was being facetious, maybe he was being brutally honest, or maybe somewhere in-between”). So if we ask ourselves: Is Joey Walker queer? We take his word for it. Is Joey Walker a twink? We check the press pic. Does Joey Walker make twink rock? Now we’re in trouble.

Breathy, melodramatic, and at times feeble, Supersoft comes close to a proper musical representation of the type’s ideal. But the album was built with the intent to place caricature and subversion at its core. Walker’s sullen demeanor and outward expression remind us that youth is the site of frustration, loneliness, and confusion, not to be reductively imagined as little more than a sexualized concoction of curiosity, amusement, submission, and wonder.

“On Top,” a doe-eyed 12/8 shuffle, is Supersoft’s most lyrically striking track, with its troubled scene of sexual torment and unfulfilled desire. Its lyrics trace the interior rise and fall of a sexual top and, through metaphor, effectively trace a connection between desired sexual roles and feelings considered exterior to sexual experience. Of its subject: “He always wanted to be on top — a higher cliff to see from/ The bodies felt better from below, yet his view was outstanding.” Note the separation of physical pleasure and desire. It’s after a disconnect between desire and result is elaborated that we find this altered refrain: “He always needed to be on top — a higher cliff to fall from/ The bodies crushed on rocks below, his view is nothing/ outstanding.”

In this mode, Supersoft is lyrically vulnerable. However, upon hearing Queer, I find that Walker’s sonics have now lost some of the same vulnerability that they once had. Queer’s lengthier interior meanderings have given way to more palatable, if slightly less convincing, vessels. To my ears, Supersoft’s most rewarding moments come in the cracks between its more concrete substance: the conversation fragments that introduce us to the album, tape distortion forcing all sibilance to a lisp; the glassy synths, gulls, and frozen guitar sustain dripping off the peaks of “On Top;” a late-album titular drone piece that could be well-expanded into an entire musical practice. These spaces of reprieve feel so necessary. “Hollow” and “Desolator” offer the strongest compositional work, providing all the arch of a mid-aughts post-rock outfit without the posturing of something to prove. Otherwise, vehicles like “Frank” and “Monster in the Well” are well-put offerings, at times exciting in their textured pallets, but just short of an edge to drive the work home.

Perhaps it’s because capturing an honest performance of vulnerability is difficult when delivered by one musician. Supersoft is a multi-tracked, one-man-band record, with Walker alone performing all the roles preceding the mixing stage. Many of its songs would be easily translated to a live setting by a four-piece band, and the result would be nice. But without an engineer’s ear receiving the whispers through glass, there is a felt distance between the mic and the audience it represents. Walker’s weighty lyrics unfortunately lose some gravity in the resulting musical theater.

The portraiture that begins “Crater” — a song of a lustful if self-loathing sub — has all the raw, desirous confession of a “Fabulous Muscles,” but it’s missing the stark nakedness that forces our attention. Only as we wade through the reverb and the relative fullness of the arrangement do we meet the rather startling couplet that launches the song: “I am acne-ridden/ But will you fuck me from behind.” A device for shock or spectacle isn’t necessarily the missing piece, just a clearer window to peep through.

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